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High profile deaths in Bilibid: Media flag possible cover-up | CMFR

High profile deaths in Bilibid: Media flag possible cover-up

Screengrab from Rappler.com.

THE BUREAU of Corrections (BuCor) is again in hot water, with the scandal over the application of the GCTA to benefit even those who had been convicted of capital crimes still fresh in the public mind.

On July 19, the media reported obtaining a death certificate of one Jaybee Sebastian, signed by a New Bilibid Prison medical officer. The document said Sebastian succumbed to a heart attack, complicated by a COVID-19 infection. He was reportedly cremated without an autopsy. Media also reported obtaining a list of other inmates who have died of COVID-19, some of whom were later identified as drug lords.

Journalists promptly asked the BuCor to verify whether the casualty was the same Jaybee Sebastian who served as a key witness in the drug charges against former Justice secretary and now detained senator Leila de Lima. The absence of an identifiable corpse triggered speculations on social media: Did Sebastian really die? The photo of his supposed ashes went viral, but did not prove he was indeed dead.

Media coverage showed that the protocols for handling the deaths of convicts in prison are vague, which means that their implementation could result in irregularities or worse, thus making a cover-up possible.

CMFR monitored the coverage of three Manila-based broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin), four primetime news programs (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, TV5’s One Balita Pilipinas, GMA-7’s 24 Oras and CNN Philippines’ News Night) and selected online websites from July 19 to 23.

Based on media reports, BuCor was not forthright in answering journalists who asked for confirmation of the deaths and related circumstances. News accounts quoted Director General Gerald Bantag as saying some inmates had died of COVID-19, but that the Data Privacy Act prevented him from releasing their names. But media also included the view of Privacy Commissioner Raymund Liboro who said that the Data Privacy Act should not be invoked in this matter, and that BuCor should have its own protocols in reporting COVID-19 deaths.

The DOJ, which oversees BuCor, was also in the dark.  Media reported DOJ’s statement that it had asked BuCor to submit a report on the recent high-profile deaths. Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said he ordered the NBI to investigate. Following Guevarra’s meeting with Bantag on July 20, Bucor confirmed the identity of convict Jaybee Sebastian as among those who died, without doing the same for the other supposedly deceased.

Guevarra told the media on July 22 that the Bucor’s protocols were “inadequate” without elaborating. And journalists left it at that.

Media had sources in the agency who said they abide by the DOH protocol of cremating COVID-19 casualties within 12 hours. However, no one asked if they were not also obliged to report cases of COVID-19 to the DOH, which was releasing counts of cases on a daily basis. Such documentation could boost the credibility of BuCor’s reported deaths.

On July 22, BuCor confirmed the death of Amin Imam Boratong, a shabu tiangge operator. Like Sebastian, Boratong was said to have also succumbed to a heart attack and COVID-19 in June, and was buried immediately in accordance with Islamic practice. News accounts said BuCor officials prohibited Boratong’s own family from opening the body bag before burial. No photo of Boratong’s corpse has been released.

Senators Richard Gordon, Tito Sotto, Ralph Recto and Risa Hontiveros demanded a sensible explanation from the BuCor. Panfilo Lacson and Ronald dela Rosa expressed little interest in holding a Senate probe. Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said deaths in custody merit investigation.

It is important for the media to focus attention on the spread of COVID-19 in jails which had already been reported earlier by PCIJ and to expose the lack of government action on the penitentiary as a hotbed for the disease.

Rappler’s coverage stands out for pointing out the Bucor’s poor track record in reporting COVID infections and deaths. In his “Secrecy shrouds Bureau of Corrections,” Lian Buan reported that relatives of some inmates who had died were not notified by BuCor. Buan added that BuCor spokesperson Gabriel Chaclag rarely replies to media queries, which prompts journalists to course questions through the DOJ.  BuCor also had the poorest FOI record among DOJ’s attached agencies as evidenced by the low number of accepted queries in the e-FOI portal.

Rappler cited its previous report in May that some sick prisoners had died of unknown causes, and without undergoing COVID-19 testing. While BuCor and DOJ regularly release the number of COVID-19 deaths, they don’t provide the total number of deaths, including those due to other causes.

The pandemic has exposed institutional failures not just in the government’s health sector. These cases have exposed even more gaps and lapses in the criminal justice system. Following their insider sources, journalists should continue to check whether the deaths are a cover-up for another sinister activity.

The BuCor has always held the dubious distinction of being a den designed not for correction but for more criminality. Reporting on the BuCor involves many routes of investigation, with different media teams working together to connect the problems to the root causes, the fetid ground on which all these scandals fester. Sadly, the press, in dealing with pandemic conditions, may have to depend on the Senate to probe these dubious deaths.