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Water Under The Bridge: Sidelining Lascañas' Testimony | CMFR

Water Under The Bridge: Sidelining Lascañas’ Testimony

Screengrab from GMA News’ Youtube account.


IS THE involvement of Rodrigo Duterte, then mayor of Davao City, in the killings perpetrated by the Davao Death Squad a dead issue?

A member of the DDS came forward to testify before the Senate on March 6 to detail his participation in the notorious group, its links to Duterte and members of his family, and the identification of victims and circumstances surrounding the different cases. Retired SPO3 Arturo Lascañas admitted he was one of the leaders who took direct orders from the mayor on DDS operations.

It is not the first time for Lascañas to speak on the death squad.  He appeared in an October 2016 Senate hearing to deny that there was such a group, contradicting the testimony Edgar Matobato, another  self-confessed DDS member and dismissing the stories about the DDS as a product of “media hype.”

Because he was recanting his first testimony, the Senate Committee on Public Order and Dangerous Drugs decided to end their inquiry into the DDS. Committee chair Senator Panfilo Lacson said that because of Lascañas “flip-flopping” and the lack of independent evidence” to support his claims, committee members did not see anything worth pursuing in the probe.

The panel, particularly Sen. JV Ejercito, also pointed to a possible motive for changing his testimony – referring to Lascañas’ failure to get approval for business deals that he tried to broker for friends in Davao.

Lacson said it is now up to the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) to continue the investigation, although he expressed little hope that they would succeed, since they did not find sufficient evidence to move for the prosecution of Duterte while he was still mayor.

Is the DDS an issue that should be investigated further? Public opinion may be divided on the question and the division is reflected as well in the coverage of the media.

Media Divided

Media saw the importance of the question as major news organizations aired the hearing live and streamed it online – providing an opportunity for the public to hear for themselves what Lascañas had to say last March 6.

CMFR monitored coverage of the Lascañas hearing and succeeding related issues from March 6 to 10 in the primetime news programs of ABS-CBN 2, GMA-7, TV5, CNN Philippines and government channel PTV-4, as well as in seven broadsheets.

CNN Philippines and TV5 were straightforward in their reports, annotating what transpired during the Senate probe. GMA-7 and ABS-CBN continued to report on the subject in the following days: airing clips of one-on-one interviews with Lascañas.

GMA-7 went further, detailing efforts of its news team to visit the Laud Quarry where the DDS allegedly killed and buried their victims. The network also reported Sen. Leila de Lima’s statement that the absence of Matobato and Lascañas in previous CHR proceedings prevented the completion resolution of CHR’s investigation.

In reporting these issues, 24 Oras and TV Patrol broadened the news frame and broke out of the usual limited cycle of government officials as sources.

Noticeably, the government’s PTV-4’s slanted its coverage of the Lascañas probe against the retired police officer, giving prominence to the issue of his credibility. Its reports quoted senate sources and included palace officials, such as Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella, who said that Lascañas was a “polluted source.” Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo, Jr. called the testimony a “fabrication,” saying “It is out of character for the President to order the killing of a woman, pregnant or not, and for that matter any person. He is outraged by any extra-judicial killing. Neither will he tolerate it. He abhors any violation of the Constitution or any law.”

The hearing was the top story in Manila Bulletin and Philippine Daily Inquirer the day after. Newspaper reports gave prominence to the Senate panel who questioned Lascañas’ credibility.  Similarly, The Daily Tribune, Malaya and Manila Standard reports relied heavily on senators who were unconvinced by Lascañas’ testimony and Palace officials who deemed him a compromised witness. Headlines such as “No probative value- Lacson” and “Palace: Giving Lascañas a forum was a waste of time” reinforced the discrediting of Lascañas.

The Philippine Star cited Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II who asked that the National Bureau of Investigation investigate “why did he (Lascañas) recant and who is behind it” – obviously finding incredible the reasons that Lascanas gave, his “spiritual renewal” after his illness and his conscience.

The single story in The Manila Times during the period monitored also relied on sources from the senate. However, in its opinion page columnist Yen Makabenta called the hearing “lazy in its inquisition,” the discussion failing to establish facts. Makabenta questioned why the Senate opted to hold the hearing when Sen. Tito Sotto, speaking to media before the hearing began, said that the inquiry was only for media mileage and would produce no corroborative value. Makabenta said, “Why did the chamber not array other witnesses who would substantiate the Lascañas claims, or prove that the Davao Death Squad (DDS) did exist? At the mention of the name of Edgar Matobato, the chamber ran away.”

Op-ed Content More Critical

Analysis and interpretation which could help the public think on the issue were published in the op-ed pages of some broadsheets. The Inquirer issued editorials on March 9 and 10 which criticized the decision to terminate any further investigation by the committee, pointing out that “Any person reasonably open to evidence would have seen the many possible ways the Senate committee could have followed up on the first hearing.” According to the Inquirer, the Senate could have traced the paper trail of the allowance that Lascañas claimed Duterte gave him monthly, the last of which he received only last January; or probe the nature of Lascañas’ connection to Duterte which allowed him, an ordinary policeman in active duty, to broker business deals.

The Inquirer further said, “And didn’t the committee hear Lascañas offer specific details about the killings of which he admitted being a part? This portion of his testimony was not only against his self-interest. It also corroborated some of President Duterte’s own self-incriminating remarks. But many senators continued to press Lascañas on one point: Who can back his claims?”

Bulletin opinion writer Leandro DD Coronel also argued, “At the Senate hearing last Monday, those who believe Lascañas wanted the truth to come out. But Mr. Duterte’s allies appeared to be more interested in protecting him than in finding the truth.” For Coronel, “it’s the nation that loses” when politicians choose to serve their partisan interests.

In Media’s Court

The existence of the DDS has been an issue hounding Duterte for over two decades. Neither government agencies nor media organizations have exerted any zeal in pursuing leads to conclusively establish its truth. The CHR has had documentary evidence since it started investigating on the death squad in 2009. But the commission has no judicial power and can only publicize its findings.

With Duterte as president, top government officials were quick to paint the presentation of self-confessed DDS hitmen as an attempt to destabilize the current administration. Clearly, the issue has become a matter for politics, which has a way of inhibiting the pursuit of inconvenient truths.  Now, more than ever, the pursuit of justice for more than 300 death squad victims will be sidelined.

Rather than following the lead of politicians, the press must conduct its own probe and test the credibility of the witnesses, seek out other corroborating faces and indicative circumstances through investigative journalism.

So far, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) has been consistent in pursuing Lascañas’ side. After publishing an article on official CHR documents on the DDS probe last March 6 (SEE: “Missing Information and Justice Stalled: What is Known About the Davao Death Squad“), PCIJ on March 21 followed up with the publication of the sworn affidavits on the DDS of four other individuals, affirming some of the points that Lascañas raised in the hearing. This information was not picked up by any media organization.

The tendency of the press to focus on mainly what politicians have to say holds back its power. In this case, most media have taken the easy way, abdicating on its responsibility to the public as an independent source of truth.