Covering despair from a distance


Buan is a multimedia journalist covering justice and corruption beat for She is also the associate editor of the online news magazine  Her views do not reflect
those of her employer.


ONE SATURDAY in April, I fell asleep with my phone on my face, Viber open, waiting for a source to respond. It was my day off, but every little bit of information was important.

I received documents showing names of prisoners of the New Bilibid Prison who died. At the time, there were 70 for just a little more than a month since March, raising concerns among stakeholders who have had to talk about it hush-hush pending confirmation from the secretive Bureau of Corrections.

My company had a strict lockdown policy on reporters, which meant I could not go to Bilibid to ambush officials. If I were to sniff around at the funeral homes in Muntinlupa in the middle of a raging pandemic, I would be putting myself, and drivers, at risk.

I needed to complete this reporting from home. But how?

That, for me, was the biggest challenge of reporting in the pandemic — it took from us all the tools of journalism that had a lot to do with simply stepping out of our homes.

In pre-pandemic times, there were a lot of things you could achieve just by being there. Sometimes you wouldn’t get anything on the record, but you would get information on background, you’d get leads or you’d get a new source.

I began by searching the names on Facebook. I figured this was the Philippines — we post about our relatives dying. 

Tracking down the dead

The next step was difficult — sending a message to these people, putting it as delicately as possible, trying to tell them I didn’t mean to intrude into their grief — which I obviously was — but that if they were willing to help, we could find answers together.

On April 30, we were able to publish a story about how there were many prisoners dying in the national penitentiary, and that people were scared.

If I wasn’t competing with time — where more people could die by the day — I would have waited a bit more before publishing.

But I learned from the book, ‘She Said,’ that sometimes it helps to publish the bits that you already know as they can attract more sources.

After a few days, I received additional documents showing that some of the causes of deaths in Bilibid were marked “DOA (dead on arrival) to consider COVID.”

How come these people were not being tested? How were they just dropping dead?

This led me to the biggest ethical crossroad of my career yet. I was able to track one of the probable COVID deaths through a local official from a 2nd-degree contact. The official was willing to help me reach the family, but I had a very important request: Do not tell them their relative is dead, I don’t know if they know yet.

One thing that became apparent to me is that Bilibid’s secrecy is not just to the media, but to families as well.

The local official understood, but we hit a blank wall when the family’s reply was: ‘Last time I heard from him, he was sick. Is he okay?’

We didn’t know how to proceed. As I explained, I couldn’t break the news of someone’s death without an official confirmation. The local official told me, but somebody had to tell them.

Yes, somebody had to. I burned the lines of justice and correction officials because this was an issue that could no longer be hushed. It needed to be told, it needed an accounting.  

One day, finally, I caught the spokesperson of BuCor on the phone, enabling us to publish the story of how an average of 60 people had been dying inside Bilibid per month. Dozens of them died of unclear causes; and without being tested for coronavirus, it was hard to get an accurate picture of the coronavirus outbreak inside the very congested prison complex. 

Reporting on those stories was hard, but it was harder post-publication, when families asked if they could finally retrieve the body of their relatives, if they could find out the real cause of death, and all the time my answer was, “I’m still asking.” 

The pandemic highlighted for me journalism’s biggest flaw — that every day we intrude into private lives claiming a story can change something, when all too often telling a story is just that. What made this reality even harder to swallow was because we were forced during the pandemic to cover despair from a distance. 

To extract painful information from grieving people from a distance meant I could not look into their eyes, I could not touch them lightly as I would if I were there with them — to let them know that I may never really understand what they are going through, but I want them to know that I will try. 

Somehow I needed to move on. The anti-terror law had just been passed, and I had piles of petitions to study.

One weekend in July, high-profile inmate Jaybee Sebastian died supposedly of coronavirus, but was cremated without being autopsied. 

My sources came through one more time, providing me documents showing that high-profile inmates housed in the special facility of Building 14 died within days of each other due to coronavirus. How could the virus hit a special facility all at once?

Senators conducted an investigation and I thought, at last, I could return to my sources and say, look, you did it, you prompted a congressional inquiry.

That inquiry never happened.

By October, it was as if nothing happened. The Senate heard BuCor’s budget, not by scrutinizing these deaths, but by praising BuCor Director General Gerald Bantag.

After the deaths came the riots. A story of drugs, guns and blades and more violent deaths.

The trouble with Zoom

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, who has not held a single press conference with the justice beat since the pandemic, agreed to guest on the Kapihan sa Manila Bay forum, bringing officials of attached agencies, including BuCor, with him.

Another thing the pandemic took away from us was the opportunity to grill officials in person, and the window to chase and corner them to answer the questions they refused to address in the formal setting.

On Zoom, you wait for your name to be called, because otherwise you stay muted. You can do the gutsy move of asking multiple follow-ups and pray the host doesn’t mute you.

On Zoom where you are a mere guest, you don’t even get to ask the question directly, it is asked for you and you can’t rebut or dispute on the spot. 

Suffice to say in that press conference, we did not get all the answers.

It is February of 2021 and I still do not have all the answers about Bilibid.

The Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) saga continues as a new manual shows that some heinous crime convicts can still avail of credits. This is contrary to a hardline  government policy against heinous crimes, and complicates even further the issue of equal protection.

I still don’t know whether inmates are actually being released on GCTA, and if BuCor is doing this right, or at least better than the blunder of 2019.

Something tells me finding answers is not going to be any easier, that we’re probably going to have to spend more weekends falling asleep with our phones on our faces waiting for a reply that will not come. 

But what choice do we have?

Coronavirus took away from us a lot of things — luxuries, freedom, peace of mind, jobs, and for some, lives. Journalism must hurdle tough challenges to make sure that truth does not become a COVID casualty, not in 2020, not this year, not ever.