Press Solidarity: Responding to Restrictive Policies and Reclaiming Access to Vital Police Information

Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility


THE DUTERTE regime has systematically taken steps to weaken the press, destroy its credibility and erode its capacity to report and to provide citizens with the information they need to make sense of what’s happening around them. From his exalted office, the president has insulted and treated with disdain journalists who ask questions about matters he would rather not discuss; called out news organizations with charges and issues that only he seemed to know about, threatened media owners with investigation that could lead to more hostile action, not the least of which was the possible cancellation of the ABS-CBN’s franchise. These have slowly and effectively constricted the freedom of the press to search out the truth about serious controversies hounding the administration.

Press protest against these intimidating measures did not have the strength and resonance provoked by recent restrictions on access to PNP spot reports and case files. During the Senate Hearing on September 5, Philippine National Police Director General Ronald dela Rosa told Senators Franklin Drilon and Panfilo Lacson that he could not share files of cases on recent killings with the Senate without the clearance from President Duterte when he was reminded of his promise during previous hearings to submit the spot reports of those killed during police operations. This is not the first time the need for presidential clearance has figured in a hearing. Dela Rosa cited the same reason for not sharing case information on drug-related killings during the senate hearing on the killing of Albuera mayor, Rolando Espinosa Sr. in September 2016.

On September 12, this year, press accounts reported the denial of journalist access to spot reports in Cebu and Davao.(“Reporters no longer allowed access to PNP spot reports,”Cebu Daily News; “Davao police: Media barred from getting spot reports,”Sun.Star Davao). PNP spokesperson Supt. Dionardo Carlos said that while police blotters are open to journalists, spot reports related to an ongoing investigation may not be released to the media, unless permitted by the head of office. Instead, PNP will address requests through the Freedom of Information (FOI) mechanisms.

Spot reports are critical sources of news, serving as building blocks of news accounts about police cases. Rookie reporters are usually assigned to the police “beat” to gain practice in the basic exercise of gathering, collating and corroborating information. They know how important this access is and build up confidence and trust in their work with police officers.

The restrictive policy protects the conduct of police investigation of sensitive and controversial cases from press and public scrutiny. A policy ban strikes at a fundamental premise in the practice of a free press – their access to official sources  of information.

Working with police records, the media also discover at times how poorly information is recorded and how even case files can lead to further confusion, deepening the lack of transparency and accountability of a law enforcement agency. The idea of denying access to such vital information at this time rankles precisely because of serious allegations of abuse of police power. PNP has addressed questions about summary killings or EJKs by classifying numerous cases in the category of deaths under investigation (DUI). And yet, the results of investigations are not routinely shared. Not even with officials in the legislature.

Not surprisingly then, journalists’ groups promptly protested the growing pattern of restriction, effectively operating in some areas as a policy ban. Among them the Cebu Defense and Police Press Corps, the Cebu Citizens’ Press Council, the Cebu Federation of Beat Reporters, and the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines. The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) expressed their solidarity with their peers. Individual journalists have also signed on to these statements.

It is heartening to note the speed with which the press community denounced the policy trend. The press community in this country demonstrated that it can join together in unity and solidarity. This growing consensus is urgently needed to check the determination of this government to control the message about Duterte’s centerpiece program, the war against drugs. Despite their differences, competition and rivalry that keep journalists from coming together on common ground, a critical mass within the media community has coalesced on this issue, coming forward to denounce this instance of administrative over-reach that they see as impunity for abusive police action.

While some police sources have denied that there is such a ban, they have also affirmed the imposition of such conditions as journalists’ having to obtain permits from the police agency or office concerned, or to file a request for information under Dutere’s practically meaningless executive order on FOI — conditions that in effect confirm that there is such a ban.  The record shows how such requests have languished without acknowledgement or response.

This and other regime actions to restrict press freedom are not without historical precedent. They were laid out in 1972 when Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. placed the Philippines under martial law through Presidential Proclamation 1081, observed today as a milestone in diverse and contradictory ways by Filipinos this week.

The signs of a repeat of this experience are everywhere evident.  Of special significance to the Philippine press and media is the attitude shown early on that the regime would not tolerate criticism nor did it appreciate the role of the press and its function in a free and democratic society – to report, comment, scrutinize and analyze government policies, its intentions and actions.

Duterte’s communications secretary recruited social media propagandists to man the government information system, demonizing the mainstream press and unleashing hate speech and fake news on digital platforms.  The government has orchestrated attacks on the integrity of some of the most respected journalists. It extended accreditation to online trolls and bloggers, at times to the disadvantage of journalists covering events of public interest, including international meetings like the ASEAN summit.

In a media forum with stakeholder groups and members of the press in Cebu last week, discussions articulated the need to stand together, the need to establish our core values which support the role of a free press in a democracy and the shared responsibility of the news media to the public.

Whatever their politics, economic interest or ideological perspective, journalists, editors and media owners must close ranks and rigorously monitor and resist any attempt to impose, with or without a declaration of martial law, the same authoritarian controls that the Marcos regime used to create a crony press as a channel of political propaganda, a veritable partner in the crimes of the regime.

The current crisis highlights the opportunity for journalists to do better, to check accuracy of facts as well as context. The public deserves and needs more than just the rote recording of statements, the kind of “business-as-usual” reporting that had unwittingly presented offensive language and violence against citizens as a norm.

These conditions call journalists to refresh or hone investigative skills that allow them to break through the surface of the news, to track and flag outrageous policy messages before these become policy actions, to interpret, analyze and make sense of the numbers and the data. As more of our young people turn to social media for their news, journalists may have to work out of the conventional box — learn new ways of telling stories so we can connect their generation to the core values of freedom, human rights, the equality for all citizens.

Indeed, Duterte’s attacks and threats could, if we work at it, rekindle the sense of journalistic obligation and responsibility. Time and again, confronted by various crises in our history as a nation, the press in the Philippines, with all its weaknesses and imperfections, have proved their worth and against great odds, exposed corruption in high places, tracked money diverted from public funds to private pockets, shared the kind of stories from the margins of society to galvanize political will to act together in pursuit of the greater public good.

Speaking truth to power, such a press assists the disparate publics to overcome their fear and realize that they too share a responsibility in preventing another curse of tyranny to reign over our land.