Human Rights Reporting and Duterte’s Drug War
by Carlos Conde
As a former journalist myself who had reported on human rights issues, I know the difficulty of navigating this difficult terrain. Translating cases or events into stories runs the risk of either losing the legal text or losing the readers’ interest. A grounding in international law helps but the story still has to come alive as it connects the concepts to local experience to give them meaning and make them relevant
THE sheer brutality of the Duterte administration’s “drug war,” in which thousands have been killed under questionable circumstances, creates the kind of reflex that journalists are accustomed to: flooding the zone, immersing one’s self in the environment of the bloodbath, and letting out the cries of pain of those scarred by the violence.
We see this in the emergence of the so-called Nightcrawlers/Night’s Watch, a gang of hardnosed if nocturnal journalists scouring the dank streets of the slums of Metro Manila for images and tales that have come to define the “war on drugs.” We experience the loss and the pain in the beautiful prose that records each personal case, and in the haunting pictures of photojournalists who put themselves in the firing line every time they set out to capture the violence and the bloodshed unleashed against the poorest of the poor.
The media’s coverage of the “drug war” has been so consistent and relentless that, on not a few occasions, I have declared that the press in this instance has upped its game and should be commended. Truth be told, if not for their work, the world would know considerably less about the “drug war” and how it is eviscerating whole communities. Indeed, given the risks, even human rights groups came to rely on these journalists for their research and documentation.
Of course, reporting the bloodbath is one thing; reporting accountability – or the absence of it — is quite another. And here, I think, despite all the excellent work that has been done by the press, journalists have held back.
This betrays a long-standing problem in the Philippine mainstream press with its coverage of human rights: an abundance of drama that calls attention to the problem. Reports, however, do not break through the surface of stories to question further and expose the underlying factors that contribute to the cause. Little space has been devoted to the issue of accountability. Where is the failure? Who is at fault? This persistence to get to the bottom of things is not quite embedded in the practice or in the culture of journalism in the country. It’s as if human rights were limited only to those concerned about these issues, the Commission on Human Rights or other human rights advocates.
Apart from accountability, the mainstream media remained unquestioning about important aspects of the “drug war” even as it churned out stories exposing all its sordidness. The “nanlaban” narrative, for instance, set by police and other officials, has been largely unchallenged.
The real extent of the drug problem has not been fully explored, with the press mostly satisfied with whatever the government says. Even the government’s declarations of declining crime rates were recorded even when these were contradicted by the acknowledgement of the higher numbers of homicide.
In reporting the raids on the homes of poor suspects, hardly anyone asked if the police secured search warrants or warrants of arrest required by rule of law and due process issues.
Doubtless the government’s relentless effort to control the narrative has been overwhelming. Journalists have had to face off government propaganda working not only through social media and official news outlets but also through newspapers and broadcast programs. The president’s executive order to the executive department bureaucracy to release information to the public has been largely ignored. Not only has there been control on information flow, there has been fudging of official statistics representing the victims of drug campaign.
As a former journalist myself who had reported on human rights issues, I know the difficulty of navigating this difficult terrain. Translating cases or events into stories runs the risk of either losing the legal text or losing the readers’ interest. A grounding in international law helps but the story still has to come alive as it connects the concepts to local experience to give them meaning and make them relevant.
Reporting, for instance, on the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) possible investigation into the “drug war” killings is far less sexy than covering the night shift as the story drifts to an international venue with unfamiliar names and peculiar procedures. Quite apart from that, delving into the ICC and its mandate alone is just too much work for journalists as it is for most of the public to appreciate and understand.
The demands of mainstream journalism not only force the journalist to produce compelling and dramatic narratives, often to the exclusion of relevant points. Do the “drug war” killings constitute a war crime? Should the ICC step in? What would it take for the ICC to do that? Why is “shoot to kill” the default response by the police to “nanlaban”? These are just some questions that can be answered by the journalist themselves.
That journalists require others to expound on these and other points, of course, indicates not laziness but an almost religious adherence to the journalistic virtues of objectivity and nonpartisanship, which is fine – until it is not. After all, while we don’t expect journalists to be subject matter experts or even advocates, we do expect them to reflect in their coverage an understanding of these issues, which their news accounts should carry as analysis or interpretation.
Then there’s the government’s success in labeling as partisan or biased any criticism or even questioning of the president’s policies. Such criticism can cause loss of access, or job or, worse, of personal security.
The media – along with other institutions that can check the government’s abuses – have been put on the defensive from Day One, by the president no less who had on numerous occasions declared his disdain for journalists and the free press. His social media supporters have behaved like a mad posse against anybody who dared to raise questions.
In other words, while journalists couldn’t help but expose the carnage out of duty but also, I’d like to think, out of outrage, they have been placed in far more dicey situations. One can be classified as an enemy of the state, a moving target for assault and attack by anyone wishing to please the regime. Hence, one often feels that, seen from the shoes of the mainstream journalist, it’s just not worth it.
In the end, I can only hope that more journalists will realize that it’s worth it, that the deaths of more than 12,000 make it worth it. The “drug war” has plunged the Philippines into its worst human rights crisis since the Marcos dictatorship. It can’t be business as usual for the Philippine press.
*Conde, a former journalist, is a member of the CMFR board and the Philippines researcher for Human Rights Watch. The views expressed here are his own.