Robredo’s brief shining moment

by  Jeraldine Pascual

HE SIMPLY could not control the drugs, he said. And no one asked why he had ordered the killing of “idiots.”

Behind a bulletproof glass panel, President Rodrigo Duterte told residents of Brgy. Potrero, Malabon City on April 2, 2019 that his administration’s drug war was failing. Well beyond the original six-month deadline he gave himself to curb the illegal drug trade, Duterte said drugs are “swallowing the country.” Indeed, the public still recalls the blocks of cocaine floating  in coastal waters and billions-worth of “shabu” slipping through Customs, only to be discovered in magnetic lifters — all captured by TV cameras for the public to see.

But the president also blamed mayors and the police for their participation in the trade in illegal drugs. In the same gathering, he acknowledged the “worldwide” scope of the country’s drug problem, citing China and Taiwan as hotspots.

On October 23, Vice President Leni Robredo told Reuters that despite the president’s “serious threats” to drug syndicates and drug lords, drugs remain “prevalent.” Duterte took the observation as a personal affront, responding with a dare that she take over the agencies dealing with the drug problem: “You want it? You’re more bright? Then try it.”

Vice President Leni Robredo during a meeting with Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD) members on November 8, 2019. | Photo from VP Leni Robredo Facebook page.

For almost all of 2019, media had been at a loss about covering the continuing “war on drugs.” Coddled “ninja cops,” another child killed in a drug raid and the continuing police manipulation of information on drug records – none gained any traction in media coverage. But with Robredo’s entry, journalists gained a new twist to the narrative.

Robredo’s stint at ICAD 

The designation of Robredo as co-chair of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD) captured public attention. It served as a trigger for the media and public to assess the overall strategy and to think in new ways about how best to address the challenge of drugs.

Robredo, who initially kept mum while Duterte and his men debated every detail of her appointment, accepted the responsibility on November 6, a decision which surprised both her allies and detractors. Many were convinced the offer was a trap. But she was resolute, saying that if she could save even just one innocent life, she was prepared to bear the burden.

Robredo was back in the news, after close to three years of being sidelined, stripped of her first Cabinet appointment as housing chief. Her takeover was watched closely from all quarters. The media duly trained their eyes and ears on the newly-appointed drug czar, keeping track of her progress as she explained with clarity the need to re-orient the government’s strategy. 

Documenting every meeting she had with law enforcement, civil society, communities and other stakeholders, the press, with the exception of the pro-Duterte media outlets, highlighted Robredo’s main point — that consolidated data was central to the success of any strategy.

Vice President Leni Robredo talks with Dangerous Drug Board (DDB) Chair Catalino Cuy during a meeting with DDB officials on  Nobvember 20, 2019. | Photo from VP Leni Robredo Facebook page.

Predictably, the papers supportive of Duterte did not get on the same trail.
The Daily Tribune stood out for its pro-Duterte stance, reporting solely on the perspective of administration allies and using phrases that were dismissive of Robredo’s progress, such as one that said Robredo “claimed enlightenment” on her first day as Duterte’s “drug czarina.” The broadsheet’s opinion pieces and editorial cartoons were also highly critical of Robredo.

It did not take long for certain quarters to criticize and complain. Reports began to record anything anyone said to downplay the strength of her performance, noting those who dismissed her request for data as unnecessary, and those who readily criticized and questioned her competence. Obviously, these came from known allies of the president, some of whom were now working with her as well as her subordinates in ICAD.

Brief yet revealing

Robredo spent 19 days on the job before Duterte revoked her appointment. The president said that he did not really trust Robredo, as she was from the opposition; that he did not really know her. Media did not dare to ask, then why appoint her in the first place?

But Robredo was clear about her goal, saying she would continue her advocacy anyway, promising to release a report of her findings.

Alas, media quickly withdrew from the substantive discussion, reduced the focus of the coverage to the political rift and rendered the policy divide as mere personality politics.

Vice President Leni Robredo releases report on the government’s “war on drugs” a month after President Rodrigo Duterte removed her from ICAD,  January 5, 2020. | Photo from VP Leni Robredo Facebook page.

Robredo’s appointment was a potential game-changer, an opportunity to review the policy and evaluate the government’s strategy to fight illegal drugs. There was little analysis however of the points she made and the methods she applied in moving the strategy away from the punitive killings that police had employed from the beginning. 

Only selected opinion pages provided independent evaluation of the government’s approach to address the country’s drug problem. Strangely, even with the president admitting he had failed, the press community still felt restrained to openly critique the mistaken notion that drove his campaign. There was also no attempt to review the soundness of her proposal: that government’s strategy should be based on data and evidence. 

Missed opportunity 

This would have been the perfect time for media to refer to the experience in other countries where governments had shifted away from punitive violence, successfully addressing the challenge of drugs with a public health approach and community-based efforts at rehabilitation.

Instead, media yielded to government’s efforts to recover from the shade of Robredo’s shine. 

If Duterte is to be believed, then the Philippines is nowhere near solving the drug problem. If Robredo’s sacking as drug czar is any indication, the bloody approach on the drug problem is not stopping anytime soon. 

Then the press faces the same challenge that it did in the beginning. Will it do better this time? 

Or will it revert to the role it took under this administration, to be its handmaid, communicating its claims, turning away from the cover up of truths about deaths under government investigation? 

“Ikaw ba, pulis ka, gusto mo may bata na matamaan? Never. Kasi Ikaw, may anak ka rin, hindi mo gusto na may mangyari na ganun. Per sh*t happens…during operation. Sh*t happens.””

Sen. Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa on the death of a three-year-old girl in a drug sting in Rizal in July 2019.