WITH A grant from the Royal Embassy of Norway in Manila, the Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility (CMFR) organized a forum on the media coverage of the centrepiece policy of the Duterte administration, the fulfilment of his campaign promise to rid the country of drugs.
As soon as he was elected, media began reporting killings involving drug suspects. These were reported as ordinary crimes. As the death count rose, media began to keep track of the number of victims as well as of the circumstances surrounding the deaths, relying mostly on police blotter reports as well as sources from the Philippine National Police (PNP), including the chief at the time, General Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa.
Much of the press coverage relied on official sources from government and from the agencies involved in the campaign—mainly the PNP and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA).
CMFR noted the decline of coverage in the third year of the Duterte administration; even as the killings have continued. In his third state of the nation address, the president warned that the “war on drugs” will continue, as chilling and as relentless as when it began. Truly, until now, the killings continue. The numbers are increasing. But the news agenda has left the drug campaign on the cold burners of news.
The forum on September 14 was attended by some 44 representatives of various stakeholder groups including the academe, students, media and civil society organizations (CSOs). Its findings were based on content analysis of media reports during the first two years (qualitative analysis) of the anti-illegal drugs campaign. CMFR also did six-month quantitative analysis of the campaign from July to December 2016.
The objectives were:
(1) to review the journalistic coverage of the “war on drugs,”
(2) to examine the ideas, images and impressions reflected in the coverage, and
(3) to determine how media shape public opinion and how the public absorbs media content about the centrepiece policy of the administration that has resulted in the loss of countless lives.
Such an evaluation and review enables the stakeholder community to take stock of what has taken place and to find possible agreement about what can be done better.
The forum presented a panel of journalists to discuss regional coverage of the campaign:
Nestor Burgos Jr., Philippine Daily Inquirer, Visayas Chief Correspondent, noted that Central Visayas has consistently been among the top three regions with the highest death toll in the “drug war,” with regionally-based alleged drug lords figuring prominently at the nationwide level. Among them are Mayor Rolando Espinosa Sr. of Albuera town in Leyte, his son Kerwin Espinosa, and Melvin Odicta, a businessman from Iloilo.
Burgos echoed the same points raised by CMFR findings: the focus on the killings and on the police as primary sources, pointing out that health experts, human rights organizations and religious leaders were cited in far fewer reports.
“It was difficult to talk to victims’ families who were afraid to speak out.” None of the families were reported to have filed cases, he said
The drop and decline in the focus by the media on “drug war” killings was also noted in the Visayas region.
Carolyn Arguillas, founder and editor of MindaNews, described the limitations of the media community in Mindanao, noting the small reportorial staff in organizations, which meant reporters were covering many beats.
Arguillas provided a timeline of Duterte’s reactions to human rights complaints—based on past MindaNews interviews prior to his presidency, when then Mayor Duterte was tagged as involved with the local vigilante group Davao Death Squad (DDS). She recalled the 2009 probe of the existence of DDS by the Department of Justice, which was then headed by now Senator Leila De Lima.
She cited then Mayor Duterte’s statements which already revealed that he regarded human rights complaints as a problem. Arguillas also recalled the prominent allegedly drug personalities killed: the Parojinogs in Ozamiz City and Mayor Samsudin Dimaukom of Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Maguindanao.
Having investigated the case of an alleged drug operation in Matalam, North Cotabato which resulted in numerous deaths, she revealed that the conflict there arose from a land dispute. One of the parties in the dispute called the police for their assistance. Arguillas pointed out that the “war on drugs” has made it easier to get search/raid warrants. Such incidents must be examined more closely, to prevent the “war on drugs” from serving as a cover for other types of armed operations by government agents.
IN VIEW OF DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES
To move the discussion forward, CMFR invited a panel of reactors to represent the perspectives of the media, the academe and the Philippine National Police:
Manny Mogato noted the lack of transparency from officials (of the PNP and the Presidential Communications Operations Office) because they only present the numbers and not much more information about the cases. These numbers, Mogato said, do not describe the circumstances and do not provide context so the public can have an understanding of whether the strategy is working or not.
The media should have broadened their sources, even in assessing the truth of the PNP claims, triangulating sources to include hospitals and funeral homes that the police usually work within the disposition of the dead. Keeping track of the count should not be limited only to police estimates.
Media focused on the blood and gore. Mogato said a lot of stories were sidelined including stories of cases filed in court or stories of arrests.
Ronald Mendoza, Ph.D., Dean of the Ateneo School of Government, used the trees and forest metaphor to describe the drug war. According to Mendoza, the media focused on “individual trees” or individual killings and incidents, and as a result, missed the “forest,” or the context of the drug policy and the bigger effects of the war. Mendoza reiterated that the media cannot focus on incidents alone. By focusing on the body count, the media missed the bigger picture.
Mendoza noted the media’s limited interest on protest and critical opinions, saying this was troubling. He equated this with the lack of effort to look at the role of barangay captains and local government officials who are the key players in the implementation of the policy. The study of the Ateneo School of Government mapped the high kill areas, which is another important story: the role of local government units (LGUs) which protected their communities and set up barriers against raids and operations.
He reviewed the key performance indicators (KPI) in the “drug war” campaign, which, based on media reports, are the number of people who surrendered, the amount of drugs seized, and the casualties. As a policy, he said, the measure of the campaign’s effectiveness should be the decline in the number of drug users/dealers, including children, as well as the rehabilitation of surrendered drug addicts.
Mendoza said that the debate on the total number of deaths is a red herring. He said the dispute over the difference between 3,000 or 4,000 is missing the point: that the deaths already number thousands and something has to be done about it.
Mendoza recommended that more follow-up stories should be done and the media need to track what happened to certain cases, if cases were indeed filed, as well as their status. It is also better to triangulate sources and to get information from as many institutions as possible.
Sr. Supt. Benigno Durana, Jr., PNP Spokesperson, questioned the methodology of the CMFR study which used both quantitative analysis and qualitative discourse. This should be checked, he suggested. He said the study is limited and focused more on the drug war numbers but that the PNP is not the only agency that should be involved. This is a bigger problem that requires the involvement of other agencies apart from the PNP.
CMFR explained later that the study showed separate periods for the quantitative/qualitative analysis. The comprehensive time-space counts, for example, is limited only to July 1–December 31, 2016. Certain qualitative aspects such as the sources and themes, were included and specified as such. The qualitative discourse limited to the issue of the body counts extended beyond the six months, through the two years from July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2018.
The PNP spokesman also recommended that the CMFR study should also consider looking into SWS surveys as a measure of public acceptance of the campaign. He recalled that in 2017, 89 percent of Filipinos approved of the “drug war” but that 70 percent also believed that the campaign involved EJKs, which raises the question of whether the media actually affected public perceptions.
Durana repeatedly said that the media should not have focused on the numbers, and that the drug problem should not be a problem to be solved only by the PNP, but should involve other government agencies.
Durana said the police are willing to sit down with the Ateneo School of Government for discussions which will help them with policy adjustments. He clarified that the PNP’s policy is to listen intently to both critics and supporters so it can effectively make adjustments in the campaign.
PUSHING THE DISCOURSE FORWARD: OPEN FORUM and QUESTIONS FROM THE FLOOR
The lively discussion after the reactors’ comments provided the opportunity to discuss certain concerns.
On the Use of Sources
Framing the Story and Government Transparency
Confusion on Numbers
Media need to get out of the habit of getting only the official version because sometimes, the official stand is not really the entire story.
For so long as the official source, the PNP, changes the classifications and shifts around the cases from one category to another, there can be no agreement on the numbers. The changing terms and categories should be traced, which seems so designed as to confuse the public and distract them from the reality of the killings.
As was highlighted from the beginning of the presentation, CMFR wants to point out that the police’s number of six thousand one hundred fifty eight (6,158) is damning enough for what it says about the state of human rights and the lack of protection for human lives in the country. These include those killed in police operations as well as the victims of so-called vigilantes.
Durana said that the PNP is willing to sit down with the academe and other institutions and listen to recommendations so they can shape policy adjustments. He adds that media should also work hand in hand with them and involve other LGUs as the drug problem is not just a law enforcement problem, it is a societal problem.
But only time will tell if the police will indeed be open to recommendations from other sources and will henceforth be transparent.