PDEA and Media Scored: Careless Reporting of a Drug Bust
THE MEDIA should find it easy enough to report a drug bust. Police reporters have years of experience chronicling such episodes. Ethical issues, however, hound this kind of reporting because of sensitive issues involved in the premature presentation of suspects to the public.
The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency’s (PDEA) recent drug bust operation in a hotel in Bonifacio Global City on November 26 yielded PHP387,000 worth of illegal drugs, 20 tablets of ecstasy, sachets of crystal meth and bottles of gamma hydroxybutyrate. The operation was targeting two suspects allegedly selling illegal drugs, but PDEA operatives arrested a total of 11 as they chanced upon nine others who were allegedly caught taking party drugs.
CMFR has scored the media practice of following the lead of law enforcement agencies which identify suspects before cases are investigated and charges filed. The media have found it difficult to restrain coverage of press conferences which line up suspects for photo-ops. But the Cebu media community agreed in 2006 to stop airing footage and printing photos of crime suspects at the initiative of the Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC). (“Dealing with grievances against media,” PJR Reports, October 2006)
PDEA presented the suspects to media on Monday, November 27, announcing as well that one of the arrested tested positive for Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). CMFR jeers the media for reports which aired or carelessly echoed the mention of this private detail. A report in ABS-CBN 2’s Bandila on November 27 included: “…lumabas sa eksaminasyon na isa sa kanila ay nagpositibo sa Human Immunodeficiency Virus o HIV at may posibilidad na nahawa na rin ang iba pa dahil sa mga natagpuang syringe.”(Examination revealed that one of them is HIV positive and there is a possibility that others may have been infected because of the syringes found.) InterAksyon’s report included the mugshots of the two targets. Most online reports on the raid had complete names of those arrested. Netizens also called the attention of CMFR to the posting of the mug shots on News 5’s Facebook page; which took down the photos after a few hours.
Presumption of innocence of the accused is fundamental, and police and security agencies should observe restraint in presenting suspects until preliminary investigation determines what charges are appropriate for any suspect. A raid takes in all individuals on the scene. But the involvement and participation in the crime scene may differ, and these should be determined before publishing their identities. As a rule, publicity of identities should be done only when cases have been filed in court, to prevent premature public judgment or trial by publicity. According to the reports, the two targets will be charged with drug peddling and possession and the others for drug use.
PDEA’s disclosure of HIV contamination of one held up every single suspect as possibly infected, subjecting them all to further negative publicity, and the stigma attached to HIV. Netizens and HIV awareness advocates assailed both PDEA and the media for exposing the identities. Rappler’s “Netizens call out media outlet for baring suspects’ mugshots, HIV status” looked into R.A. 8504 or the Philippine AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998 which protects the privacy of individuals of people living with HIV. The article noted that the law specifies that “all health professionals, medical instructors, workers, employers, recruitment agencies, insurance companies, data encoders, and other custodians of any medical record, file, data, or test results” should observe confidentiality. It also reported that there are pending bills filed by Dinagat Island Rep. Kaka Bag-ao and Senator Risa Hontiveros which seeks to address the gap in confidentiality clause to include media. (Update: The House of Representatives approved the third and final reading of the House Bill 6617 or the Philippine HIV and AIDS policy Act on December 4, 2017.)
Presenting suspects has always been a problematic practice and the national media has yet to resist the urge in eagerly reporting these. Hopefully, media will learn from this incident and be careful enough to avoid causing any or further harm to anyone and in this case, not reinforce stigma attached to persons living with HIV.