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Tokhang Take Two: Covering the PNP's Return to the Drug War | CMFR

Tokhang Take Two: Covering the PNP’s Return to the Drug War

Photo by Vincent Go


WITHIN SEVEN months of President Duterte’s drug war, over 7,000 persons have been killed by police or by so-called vigilantes/unidentified assailants.  Meanwhile two major scandals revealed the involvement of ranking officers of the Philippine National Police (PNP) in criminal activities including illegal drugs: the murder of Albuera, Leyte mayor Rolando Espinosa Sr. while detained in jail and the kidnap-slay of Korean businessman Jee Ick Joo in the police headquarters at Camp Crame.

The two crimes provoked the Senate to hold hearings with damning results; forcing Duterte to close down in late January the PNP’s Anti-Illegal Drugs Group (AIDG) and placing the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) as the head agency of the anti-drug program. The PDEA is under the Office of the President. Oplan Double Barrel was in effect suspended.

On March 6, about a month after the reshuffle, PNP Chief Ronald Dela Rosa announced the formation of a new PNP Drug Enforcement Group (DEG) and the return of the police to the fight against drugs in its current iteration: Oplan Double Barrel Reloaded.

Media reported the change of names and the formation of a new agency to coordinate a comprehensive anti-drug program.  But most reports did not probe what changes this would effect in the actual conduct of the campaign, especially on the part of the police, whose anti-drug unit had been taken out of operations by the president’s decision.

As domestic opposition to the killing strategy has become more pronounced, the revised Oplan is clearly designed to placate critics. Dela Rosa promised a “less bloody, if not bloodless” campaign under the revised Oplan.

CMFR had previously noted significant findings after the PDEA took over from the PNP:  There were no killings by the police of suspects who resisted arrest or “nanlaban.”  The PDEA reported a much lower incidence of suspects killed in the course of their anti-drug activities. But the average number of those killed by “unidentified assailants” had remained the same. (See “Killers Still at Large: The Myth of Law and Order”)

While most of the coverage reported the “Reloaded” version as an event—recording the statements made by Dela Rosa in the PNP press conference—CMFR noted the effort of some journalists to measure the significance of the policy revision. What, apart from the name and organizational structure, had changed?

CMFR monitored reports from the newspapers Manila Bulletin, the Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star; news programs 24 Oras (GMA-7), Aksyon (TV5), Network News (CNN Philippines) and TV Patrol (ABS-CBN 2); as well as relevant news websites from March 6 to 15, 2017.

Accountability of PDEA and the PNP

Initial reports in both print and broadcast were straightforward, announcing that the newly formed DEG will continue the work of the now-defunct AIDG. But there was no reference to the implications of the transfer of responsibility from the PNP to the PDEA, which was done by the president himself in a late night news conference at Malacañang in January 29.

On March 11, media reported that Executive Order (EO) No. 15 created Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD), a super-body  composed of 20 agencies—including the PNP. The EO was signed by Duterte on March 6 but was only made public four days later.  Media further reported that the EO names the PDEA as the head of ICAD, coordinating and synchronizing the activities of various agencies. Member agencies work in clusters to address and undertake enforcement, justice, advocacy, and rehabilitation – establishing a comprehensive framework of action to address all aspects of the drug problem (Section 3, EO No. 15).

While some reports mentioned that the police are coordinating with PDEA in the revived anti-drugs campaign, there was no clarification about the lines of accountability. The PNP submits to the oversight of the Napolcom which is composed of ex-officio chairperson (DILG Secretary), four regular commissioners and an ex-officio member (PNP chief). But there is clearly a direct communication line between President Duterte and Dela Rosa.

If PDEA leads ICAD, the coordination involving the PNP may be problematic. Media reports in late February and early March said the PDEA remains the lead agency in the war on drugs, but reports during the monitored period did not elaborate on the issues of accountability and the dynamic between PDEA and PNP.

Data Reviewed

Media issued routine updates on the numbers of killed or apprehended during the monitor period. Some reports made an effort to analyze the data, pointing out that there were more suspects arrested than killed since the revised Oplan took effect.

A 24 Oras report on March 6 compared the results of the anti-drug operations then and now, providing an overview of the campaign’s outcome under the PNP and under the PDEA. From July 3, 2016 to January 30, 2017, police conducted 43,593 operations which resulted into 53,025 arrests and 2,555 deaths. From January 31 to February 28, 2017, the PDEA ran 807 operations which yielded 509 arrests and 9 deaths. On a daily average, the report said 12 suspects died in PNP operations as opposed to PDEA’s 0.14 or one in seven days. Even with different time frames, the numbers provided a point of comparison between the anti-drug operations of two law enforcement agencies.

The Star’s “Double Barrel 2: More arrests, less deaths” (March 12) followed a week later and reported a similar finding, while CNN Philippines posted an infographic summarizing the results of the revised anti-drug program in its first week (“PNP: 23 dead in 1st week of renewed drug war,” March 15).


Human Rights Protocols Ignored

When the killings began under Tokhang, the media did not detail the mandate given to the police nor the protocols to be observed which were written in the Command Memorandum Circular (CMC) No. 16 – 2016, the governing document of the original Oplan Double Barrel. This document set forth detailed protocols for the observance of due process and human rights protection in the conduct of the war against drugs, although this was never referred to by any PNP official nor cited in media reports.

The guidelines also instructed the police to “…strictly observe the Rights of the Accused enshrined in the Bill of Rights under the Philippine Constitution, other allied laws, rules and regulations, as well as the internationally accepted principles of international laws, public policy, and with due observance of human rights.” Strict observance of RA 7438—which defines the rights of persons arrested, detained or under custodial investigation as well as the duties of the arresting, detaining and investigating officers—and other existing rules and regulations of the PNP in the promotion of human rights, were also clearly indicated (8. Coordination Instructions, e to f).

The circular did not provide guidelines for dealing with suspects who resist or fight back.  But the Revised PNP Manual on Operational Procedures has always been clear on this. In a previous monitor, CMFR cited the rules:  Policemen do not automatically have the power to kill a suspect even if he resists. Instead, police should use reliable force to subdue and take the suspects into custody as emphasized by rules 7.1 (Excessive Force Prohibited), 7.5 (Application of Necessary and Reasonable Force) and 13.1 (Arrest: General Guidelines) of the PNP manual. (See “Duterte’s Drug War: Debunking Presumption of Regularity” which cheered the column of Atty. Joel Butuyan in the Inquirer)

The media did not ask whether the code had been suspended for the purposes of the drug war and that the police were no longer cautioned against killing suspects without sufficient provocation.

Media reports have tracked the numerous cases of police killing suspects who resisted or “nanlaban.”  Former President Fidel Ramos, who had served as chief of the Philippine Constabulary, was highly critical of the shooting of suspects. In his October 8, 2016 column published in the Bulletin, Ramos said the Philippines is “losing badly,” noting that Duterte had been stuck with several issues including controversies about extra-judicial killings of drug suspects.

In contrast, President Duterte had repeatedly expressed his support for the police who, faced with resisting suspects, had to kill to defend themselves. Media’s silence on the instructions written in the Oplan document has led to the acceptance of Duterte’s “guideline” as the primary source of policy assuring full presidential protection of police in operations.

When the PNP chief announced the formation of the DEG, the media quoted Dela Rosa’s words “less bloody, if not bloodless” without question. Members of the DEG, reports said, will undergo a strict review of their performance records to insure that the officers have had no involvement in drugs or other criminal activities. Official guidelines were yet to be clarified by Dela Rosa, initial reports said. No reports have followed up on this.

However, there is no document that issues protocols for the revised Oplan. It is hoped that the original protocols will be observed. For example, the command circular stipulates that the conduct of house to house visitations “must be done in a manner that shall not violate the rights of the subject” (Section 5. Execution, 3-c).

Hopefully, the media has learned a lesson and will be more vigilant in reporting the implementation of Oplan Double Barrel Reloaded.

When government officials claim they have made changes, the media need to hold them to their word, keeping the public posted about the activities undertaken in a revised program of action. Given the grievous loss of lives which went on almost unchallenged in the first seven months of Duterte’s war on drugs, the press needs to uphold the human rights context and orientation.  The press is in the privileged position to ask questions about the statements, testing the truth of official claims about change.