De Lima’s Detention: A Cautionary Tale of How Laws Were Weaponized and How Media Could’ve Covered It Better

For what it’s worth, De Lima’s almost seven-year detention is a lesson to Philippine media: When the full force of the government is used to go after critics, cutting through the official narrative is hard. But we should try harder and let readers know the importance of what is missing in the story.

THE INITIAL allegation against former Senator Leila de Lima came from the then-president himself, Rodrigo Duterte: She facilitated the illegal drug trade at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP).

“She was on the take. She could not have allowed those things to happen…for nothing? You must be kidding,” he told reporters in August 2016 at a visit to a wake of a police officer slain during a drug operation.

But in the same press conference, he cleared her from involvement in the drug trade: “I wouldn’t think she would be careless. She facilitated everything for money. But De Lima was never into, ‘Sige magpabili ka ng ganun.’ I would be lying if I do that.”

Yet in just a little over a month, the narrative changed — Duterte claimed De Lima was running the illegal drug trade at the national penitentiary, relying on testimonies of convicted NBP inmates and Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) officials.

A congressional hearing, aired live on nationwide television, detailed her affairs and threatened to show her alleged sex tape with her married former driver, who supposedly acted as her bagman collecting drug money from incarcerated drug lords. 

Duterte upped the ante, calling her “immoral” and an “adulterer.”

By February of 2017, she was under arrest on three drug charges and would remain detained for the next six years, eight months and 21 days.

It would take four years since her arrest for the first case to fall. No link was established between her and co-accused Jad Dera, a Muntinlupa court ruled in 2021.

The second case was dismissed on the merits in May 2023 after the court gave weight to the recantation of the testimony of former BuCor OIC Rafael Ragos, who initially claimed he delivered PHP10 million worth of drug money to De Lima.  

Aside from Ragos, 12 others have either retracted their sworn statements or expressed their desire to recant.

In November, De Lima was granted bail in her remaining drug case on the ground that the prosecution evidence was not strong, even without taking the retractions into account.

In all likelihood, even Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla and former presidential spokesperson Harry Roque conceded, she will be acquitted.

But how and why did it take almost seven years for an accused — an incumbent senator at that — to clear her name of what appears now to be trumped up charges?

To be sure, there were complicated legal issues that needed to be resolved by the Supreme Court (SC) first, such as the issue of jurisdiction of the regional trial court (RTC) and the validity of the issuance of the arrest warrant.

Even then, there were telltale signs early on that raised questions as to the nature of the charges. 

Ten months since De Lima’s arrest, the prosecution was still amending its criminal charge — from illegal drug trading to conspiracy to commit illegal drug trading — a change which SC Associate Justice Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa questioned in his dissenting opinion in the 2017 SC ruling that upheld the validity of De Lima’s arrest and the RTC’s jurisdiction. 

Caguioa pointed out that the original charge presumed drug trading had happened while amending it to conspiracy meant drug trading had yet to happen — two inconsistent positions which, he said, deprived De Lima of her right to be informed of the charges against her.

Then-Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio also noted there were no allegations of basic elements of the crime in the criminal charge — the identity of the seller, identity of the buyer, the kind and quantity of the illegal drugs sold or traded, the consideration and the delivery of the illegal drugs, and the actual payment.

He called the drug charges “a pure invention,” “a fake charge” and De Lima’s detention “one of the grossest injustices ever perpetrated in recent memory in full view of the Filipino nation and the entire world.”

Then-Associate Justice Marvic Leonen said there’s reason to suspect “that her case is quintessentially the use of the strong arm of the law to silence dissent.”

De Lima’s legal team had also consistently assailed the qualifications of convicts as witnesses. 

These are points the media could have highlighted and explained better but the SC ruling and the discussion in the dissenting opinions came a year after the public had already been treated to the salacious details of De Lima’s life. By then, the memes on “saba” queen and her romantic relationships had been firmly ingrained on social media.

What then could the media have done better?

Faced with a president with a tendency to exaggerate statements, there could have been better fact-checking early on. He should have been asked: What changed between August and September 2016 which made him conclude De Lima was running the illegal drug trade at the NBP instead of just facilitating it? The distinction is crucial as it would have spelled the difference between the non-bailable drug charges and the direct bribery charge which is bailable and under the jurisdiction of the Sandiganbayan.

The media did expose errors in Duterte’s drug matrices and there was pushback from some personalities but the media largely carried statements made during congressional hearings on De Lima.

To be fair, legislative proceedings are official proceedings, with witnesses placed under oath and presumably with prepared sworn statements. The media have always covered these hearings. And since most of the witnesses were jailed, it would have been close to impossible to get access to them to verify their statements.

But given what we know now about how witnesses were allegedly coerced into executing affidavits and making allegations, shouldn’t the media have reconsidered airing the live coverage of congressional hearings, especially as these dealt with sensitive information? In live coverage, the public is given one side of the story. In reports of developments, journalists are expected to include the side of the other party or at least an attempt to get the side, advising readers that getting that side is important to gain full understanding of the story. 

There was also little follow-up in the news on the spate of stabbings and violent incidents inside the NBP before the convicted witnesses testified against De Lima and the subsequent sudden deaths of some witnesses. This could be attributed to the lack of transparency on the part of BuCor and NBP at that time, especially with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Efforts could also have been made to find out why several judges that previously handled De Lima’s cases either inhibited or chose to retire early. Was there pressure exerted on the case? From whom? Media did not probe into these developments or indicate their significance. This background can be written into the reports. The difficulties of access in politically sensitive cases are part of the story. 

For what it’s worth, De Lima’s almost seven-year detention is a lesson to Philippine media: When the full force of the government is used to go after critics, cutting through the official narrative is hard. But we should try harder and let readers know the importance of what is missing in the story. MT


Mike is a journalist who previously covered legal and human rights issues for ABS-CBN News.