On a President’s Orders: New Frontline Docs Look at Duterte and MBS

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte isn’t pulling the trigger every time a drug dealer or drug user is killed by the police. Similarly, when Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi stepped into his country’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) didn’t kill him. But, as two new documentaries from FRONTLINE show, Duterte and MBS are responsible for these murders.

We don’t see Duterte much in “On the President’s Orders,” which airs tonight on PBS, but we hear his words throughout the film. 

“There are three million drug addicts, I’d be happy to slaughter them,” he says in  a speech in 2016, seemingly eager to compare himself to Adolf Hitler. That same year, Duterte launched his war on drugs, during which police killed at least 3,000 people during the first year, and masked gunmen executed  thousands more, according to the film. 

After this seemingly endless killing, public support for the president’s drug war begins to change, and Duterte takes steps to scale back the violence. This is where the film, directed James Jones and Olivier Sarbil, really begins. 

It focuses on Caloocan City, which is part of metropolitan Manila, and the arrival of Jemar Modequillo, a new police chief brought in to establish greater discipline within the force. It shows him training his officers, scaring them into obedience with his own threats of violence. 

He explains to the filmmakers, who were able to embed with one of his units, that Durterte wants the drug war to be “less bloody but more accomplishments,” meaning fewer people dead but more arrests. But, to the people living in Caloocan under the police’s watch, little feels different.  

“They still terrorize us,” a teenager says. “They still want to kill us.” 

According to the film, since the start of the drug war, more than 100,000 people have been arrested, some of whom have been  jailed for years awaiting trial.

The documentary, which can feel more like a narrative feature film, offers extraordinary access. 

It takes us inside the Caloocan jail, which looks like hell on earth: men cramped together, sitting on the floor with no room in between them, and vacant looks in their eyes. 

A jail official tells a suspect who was caught with less than 10 grams of marijuana that if he confesses, he’ll get a maximum of six months, but if he tries to contest his charges, he risks spending 20 years locked up. 

The filmmakers have full access to the police, who grant them candid interviews and take them on patrol with them. But they also provide the audience intimate glimpses into the lives of the poor who are living in complete fear of coming into contact with law enforcement.  

Despite Modequillo’s talk of discipline, locals are worried the body count will start going up again, and so it does, with an uptick in shootings being carried out by masked gunmen. The murders appear to be professional killings, and many believe they are being carried out by police death squads. 

The film includes stunning footage of one of these executions: a taxi bike driver gunned down by two men on a motorbike while his toddler son plays next to him. The crowd around doesn’t immediately react in horror. Instead, they seem to keep their distance as the victim staggers down the street. This reaction appears to be evidence of how these crimes have become normalized and the victims so completely dehumanized. 

The dehumanization is also on full display in the language Duterte and the police use to talk about drug users. In this way, Duterte has created, “a permission structure for mass murder” yells an activist at a protest in Manila. 

Duterte is not doing the killing, but he’s sanctioned it every step of the way. The film closes by acknowledging that the International Criminal Court has opened a preliminary investigation into Duterte and these extrajudicial killings. And, it’s asked to review footage from the film. 

MBS and the murder of Khashoggi 

FRONTLINE’s two-hour documentary on MBS could also be called “On the President’s Orders.” 

While correspondent Martin Smith’s investigation offers a much broader portrait of the Saudi crown prince, Khashoggi’s assassination haunts the film, and Smith’s hunt for answers about it drives the movie forward. 

Smith, who has been covering Saudi Arabia and the region for 20 years, offers a deeply reported picture of who MBS is, and where he is taking Saudi Arabia. 

He puts the economic and cultural reforms that MBS is spearheading in the appropriate context: these changes have come with zero political reform, and, if anything, are being paired with an uptick in violent repression. 

Smith shows the music concerts, amusement parks and sports events that would never have been allowed by the religious police before but are now permitted. 

“I’ve been coming to Saudi Arabia for many years. Over that time, I witnessed very little change, but in recent years, I’ve been surprised,” Smith says. 

Many in the United States — in Washington, on Wall Street, in Hollywood and Silicon Valley — blindly accepted MBS as a great reformer because of these changes, thinking they ushered in a new, more modern and open society. 

“You did say, ‘I’m dealing with a different kind of Saudi than anything I’ve ever seen,’” Karen Elliott House, an American journalist and former managing editor at The Wall Street Journal, tells Smith.   

But what Western supporters of MBS all failed to recognize, or chose not to care about, was the series of power moves he was taking, which were helping him to seize even greater control.

To consolidate his power, he reportedly put his rival Mohammed bin Nayef under house arrest. He took steps to control and manipulate debate on social media, perhaps with the help of a Saudi mole inside Twitter. In September 2017, he launched a crackdown against influential clerics and intellectuals, charging them with acting on behalf of “foreign parties against the security of the kingdom.” MBS then imprisoned more than 200 businessmen at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, forcing them to hand over assets, which MBS claimed they stole from the Kingdom. Reports of physical abuse and torture seeped out and at least one person died while in custody there. The Saudi government has denied these allegations. Around the same time, Saad Hariri, the prime minister of Lebanon at the time, was essentially ordered at gunpoint to resign after being summoned to Saudi Arabia. 

It was after all of this occurred that MBS traveled to the United States in March 2018 and was fêted wherever he went, with the Trump administration lavishing the most praise. 

As Khashoggi watched all of this unfold, in exile from his home country, he grew increasingly alarmed by MBS, a man he had originally supported and had even been excited about. Perhaps, it was because Khashoggi had been a government insider and never a radical that his views were so threatening to MBS. 

Now, the murder of Khashoggi has become emblematic of the MBS regime, which is why the Saudi government needs the world to think it was carried out by rogue actors within the security services. Of course, this runs counter to the CIA’s conclusions about MBS’ central role, as well as the findings of Agnes Callamard, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings.

In an interview not caught on camera, Smith is finally able to ask MBS about Khashoggi’s murder. While MBS claims to have had no knowledge of the murder, he accepts some responsibility, saying “It happened under my watch.”

Image: In On the President’s Orders, FRONTLINE presents a searing, on-the-ground look at President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly campaign against drug dealers and suspected drug users in the Philippines. Pictured is a police officer on a night patrol in Manila, Philippines. Photo: Olivier Sarbil/FRONTLINE

 

About the Author(s)

Kate Brannen

Editorial Director of Just Security; nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. Follow her on Twitter (@K8brannen).