Caught in a Tight Spot: “Tokhang for Ransom” and Kidnap-slay Controversy
“THIS IS your police… We serve and protect,” says the message on a wall by the gate of Camp Crame, the Philippine National Police’s (PNP) headquarters along Edsa in Quezon City. But what if the protector becomes the assailant—which seems to be the situation for the national police as the kidnap and killing of Korean businessman Jee Ick Joo has come to light in early January.
The crime, committed under the guise of an anti-drug operation, put the PNP on the hot seat, with their officers hauled to the halls of the Senate for tough interrogation. The probe led by former PNP chief and now Senator Panfilo Lacson with the strong assist from human rights champion Senator Leila de Lima revealed enough to raise a public hue and cry, enough for PNP Director General Ronald Dela Rosa to suspend Oplan Tokhang, the president’s much vaunted strategy to fight drugs.
To date, more than 7,000 people have been killed from both police operations and vigilante-style killings. Police authorities had so quickly brushed aside criticisms on the conduct of the drug war, but the kidnap-slay scandal now precludes any PNP resistance to the growing pressure to check the madness of its methods.
The victim was killed in October 2016, three months before the story broke. Media first reported it as a routine crime story, albeit involving a foreigner engaged in business. The initial accounts suggested that the victim was a suspected drug lord, failing to point out that the slain victim was long dead, his corpse cremated and that the investigation had been prodded by the petition of an anxious wife who wanted to know about a husband who had been taken by force from their home.
The agencies who took up the investigation were the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and the PNP’s Anti-Kidnapping Group (AKG), and were media’s main sources. Media reports ascertained the suspicious circumstances of the death, sensing the use of tokhang for other purposes but not to bigger skeletons hidden in the PNP’s dark closets.
CMFR monitored reports of newspapers Manila Bulletin, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Daily Tribune, Malaya, Manila Standard and The Manila Times; primetime newscasts 24 Oras (GMA-7), Aksyon (TV5), Network News (CNN Philippines) and TV Patrol (ABS-CBN 2); as well as select online news websites from January 8 to 29, 2017.
Overview of the kidnap-slay coverage
The Inquirer was the first to break the story. According to their January 8 report, Jee Ick Joo was abducted from his Angeles City, Pampanga home in October 18, 2016. On January 6, Choi Kyung-jin, Jee’s distraught wife, agreed to speak to the Inquirer “amid fears for her own safety.” Choi had appealed to President Duterte and PNP chief Dela Rosa for help. Jee, the Inquirer report suggested, could be a victim of what was dubbed as “tokhang for ransom.” (“Is Sokor businessman victim of ‘tokhang for ransom?”)
Marisa Marquicho, Jee’s household help, was also abducted but released later on the same day in Quezon City.
The Bulletin and Star began its coverage of the case almost a week later on January 13.
All three broadsheets reported developments as these were recounted by various sources, revealing the abduction case to be a murder. These traced the events leading to Jee’s death in Camp Crame, the contents of SPO4 Roy Villegas’ affidavit which gave details of the crime and the individuals involved, and when he surfaced, the denials of the accused SPO3 Ricky Sta. Isabel.
Sources were usually officials from the NBI, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the PNP. Statements from Malacañang officials, the South Korean Foreign Ministry were cited, along with comments from congressmen and senators, anti-crime advocate Teresita Ang See of the Movement for Restoration of Peace and Order (MRPO), and officers of the Human Rights Watch (HRW).
These reports were prominently featured in the front pages. But only the Inquirer and the Star articles gave the necessary context early in the coverage: that Jee’s case reflects a pattern, that it is not an isolated incident by reporting other suspected cases of “tokhang for ransom” (“Another ‘Tokhang For Ransom’ Case Bared,” Inquirer, January 12; “Tokhang for ransom: 11 more cases bared,” Star, January 20).
The Bulletin, for its part, covered the story by rote, simply following the case as reported through statements of a roster of officials from President Duterte, Cabinet secretaries and ranking members of the House of Representatives and Senate. There was little effort exerted to go beyond what others had already reported, as though it did not see the story as having any other significance.
The same can be said of the reports by Malaya, the Times, the Standard and Tribune.
Coverage by television news programs 24 Oras, Aksyon and TV Patrol began on January 12, with Network News following suit the day after. Primetime newscast included the story in the rundown of the news shows. But like the Bulletin, it was given no more than routine treatment.
The coverage probably left the PNP unperturbed by the case until things started moving and moving fast as the Senate held its hearing to investigate the case.
Missing the big picture
The hearing conducted by the Senate Committee on Public Order and Dangerous Drugs headed by Senator Lacson on January 26 gave enough hot button points for media reports. It highlighted key points such as the inconsistencies between the findings of the NBI and PNP, and the back and forth of accusations and denials of suspects SPO3 Sta. Isabel and Supt. Rafael Dumlao III whom the former said is the man behind the crime.
The senators found enough to support its conclusion: there are rogue cops operating in the PNP, some of them ranking officials with the authority to plan and execute crimes against innocent citizens. This charge had been aired in the past and raised in connection with drug killings. But without an actual case providing sufficient proof, it had been brushed aside by PNP authorities, who defended themselves and quickly pointed instead to vigilante groups who, they said, were acting on their own.
But the Senate sessions has done more to validate the criticism of PNP’s conduct of the drug war. Lacson showed a video provided by an anonymous source but someone the senator knew enough to know it was authentic. This showed a camera recording of undercover agents planting evidence in an office before the police came to raid the place. It would have been foolish for the police to argue further that Jee’s case was one-of-a- kind.
It is completely logical for the media to follow this story not just as a high profile case but as evidence that leads to closer investigation of the abuse committed by the police implementing the president’s anti-narcotics campaign.
Although the Senate hearing was the banner story of the television news programs, reports on the matter were mostly focused on the finger-pointing between Sta. Isabel and Dumlao. The face-off was given more prominence than that of the points raised by senators, such as Lacson’s retort to the PNP leadership regarding cases involving scalawag policemen.
This was not the case for the Inquirer and Star which described Lacson’s video in full in their lead story on January 27. (“Lacson exposes more police scams,” Inquirer; “Lacson’s video shows ‘tokhang for ransom’,” Star)
Where to go from here
It would be media’s failure to remain in passive and reactive mode, with little effort to clarify the big picture that reveals criminals in uniform. The topics raised in the hearing could have made it easier for the media to look at the bigger picture—the role of the police in the killing of over 7,000 drug suspects, targeted without the mandated observance of due process.
Following the Senate hearing on Jee’s kidnap-slay, Duterte dissolved the PNP Anti-Illegal Drugs Group (AIDG) and Dela Rosa halted the anti-illegal drugs operations by the police immediately.
With the issue now out in the open, the media must continue following the case. It has every reason to follow every lead possible that could lead to strong evidence of police abuse in the conduct of the drug war.
So far the list of cases supporting the premise are the killing of anti-crime crusader Zenaida Luz in October 2016 by masked men who turned out to be policemen; and the death of Albuera Mayor Rolando Espinosa Sr. in an alleged shootout incident inside his holding cell as authorities served him a warrant of arrest in November of the same year.
So far, despite Dela Rosa’s proclaimed resolution, no findings have proven that he is serious about cleaning up the PNP stables. Hopefully, the media have not been persuaded otherwise by his show of public scolding and ordering push-ups for his men.