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Discovering the Hidden Cell: Simplistic Reporting | CMFR

Discovering the Hidden Cell: Simplistic Reporting

Screengrab from Rappler.


THE DISCOVERY of a hidden jail cell in a police station in Tondo, Manila on Thursday, April 27, added yet another anecdotal evidence to a growing body of reports on alleged human rights abuses committed by the police in its relentless implementation of the government’s war on drugs.

Following a tip on alleged drug suspects being held without charges, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) conducted a surprise inspection at the Manila Police District’s (MPD) Police Station 1 along Raxabago St., in Tondo. CHR found what appeared to be a jail cell behind a bookshelf, holding 12 people at the time. Media reports described the hidden jail as a windowless, five feet wide room with one exhaust fan. Detainees had no toilet for their use and were forced to use plastic bags for this purpose.

Initially, station commander Supt. Robert Domingo denied the existence of a secret cell. The Philippine National Police (PNP) said it was a creative way to “maximize space” and questioned the timing of the surprise inspection, which was conducted during the Asean Leaders’ Summit in Manila. The CHR pointed out that such secret detention places are prohibited by the 1987 Constitution. Domingo and 12 members of the MPD Drug Enforcement Unit were relieved from their posts the following day.

How did mainstream media report the matter? Quite predictably, many of the reports focused on statements from key personalities from the PNP and the CHR, with additional quotes from some senators and non-government organizations, such as Human Rights Watch (HRW).

With the ongoing war on illegal drugs as background, the stories should have explored the larger context of human rights violations.  Reporters should have checked whether the police observed the requirements along with the failure to observe due process in the detention of those found in the secret cell. The failure to look at these angles resulted in simplistic reports on the Raxabago hidden jail.

CMFR reviewed coverage in print (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star and Manila Bulletin) as well as primetime and late night newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol and Bandila, GMA-7’s 24 Oras and Saksi, TV5’s Aksyon and Aksyon Tonite and PTV-4’s News @ 6 and News @ 9) from April 27 to 30 to assess the level of reporting during the first three days.

Since the hidden jail was discovered in the evening, the first to carry the reports were the broadcast channels and online news sites. Most of the late-night newscasts showed the inspection, including interviews with detainees who claimed they were tortured and asked to pay between PHP 30,000 to PHP100,000 in exchange for their freedom. Reports played up footage of the cramped jail cell and the lack of basic facilities.

Expectedly, reports in the state-run PTV-4 were focused on the government point of view; sources in reports were PNP National Capital Region Police Office Chief Director Oscar Albayalde, Supt. Domingo and President Rodrigo Duterte. The primetime and late night newscasts aired two reports each on April 28 with no further follow-up.

It was the banner story of the Inquirer the following day, but the Star published the report in its inside pages. The Bulletin published a report on April 29, reporting on the sacked police officers.


While reporting may have been superficial for the most part, there were commendable efforts. The Star’s “‘Hidden cell’ found in Manila Police District station” took note of the CHR’s visitorial powers over jails, prisons, or detention facilities as mandated by Executive Order No. 163 which was signed during the term of President Corazon Aquino. On television, Aksyon Tonite looked at data on jail congestion. Information from the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) showed a total of 131,923 prisoners across the country as of January 2017. Of this number, 98 percent or 128,961 are awaiting trial while the rest were already sentenced. The report also showed that jails Metro Manila were the most populated, with a total of 38,000 inmates in the region. In a press briefing in April, BJMP Director Serafin Barreto provided information on congested facilities, citing the Biñan City Jail in Laguna as one example, which had a capacity for 22 but held 602 inmates. Barreto admitted that there was a spike in the number of prisoners from the start of the war on drugs.

Last week’s discovery in Raxabago, Tondo should prompt media to conduct extensive validation of claims that the police were extorting money from the detainees. The larger context of existing laws prohibiting such oppressive conditions and other forms of abuse of those arrested and detained would draw public attention from just the sensational aspects of the discovery to the larger questions of accountability and the required enforcement of already existing laws.

Media must remember that this is not the first time that a hidden detention cell was found in a police station. In 2014, the CHR also discovered a secret detention facility in Biñan, Laguna, where detainees were tortured to force them to reveal information. The initial reports during the first three days could have referred to that first hidden cell to stress the failure of government agencies to undertake the necessary correction and reform of our punitive system.



Violations Exposed


Screengrab from VERA Files’ Facebook page


IT’S NOT secret that detention cells in the Philippines are overcrowded, but utilizing space not meant for human detention is a different story.

In “At least how many laws are violated in the PNP’s secret jail cell?,” VERA Files lists down the specific laws that the Manila police violated when they converted that space into a secret jail cell.

Presented in a question and answer manner, the article discussed the standards for detention facilities, the proper treatment of prisoners, laws prohibiting secret detention places, and arrest procedures. The piece also notes other possible violations committed by the Tondo police as there were no records of arrest and inquest proceedings for the prisoners.

The piece succeeds in translating legal provisions into a simple, understandable narrative. Efforts like these are welcome, as the piece adds much-needed information and invaluable discussion to the issue of unlawful detention. After all, regardless of the crime committed, detainees deserve to be treated in accordance with the law.