War on Drugs, Who’s Gaming the Numbers?

By Penz Baterna

Based on the independent counts, if not quoting the PNP or the HR advocates, the press are recording lower death statistics compared to the police.

THE PHILIPPINE National Police (PNP) has accused the media of exaggerating the numbers of drug war deaths. To clear the “confusion,” they created #RealNumbers, a series of social cards to show the “real” drug war statistics updated regularly. The social cards are shared across government social media platforms and are published in the websites of the PNP, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) and the Philippine Information Agency (PIA).

But a review of the PNP’s release of information and media reports shows that media’s confusion was caused by the changes made by the PNP. In a number of times, the PNP gave counts which were different from the last that they issued as well as the categories or terms to classify drug related deaths.

Quick number changes were evident as early as September 2016. As of 6 am on September 14, PNP said that 1,506 were killed during police operations since July 1, 2016. But PNP Chief Ronald dela Rosa in a senate hearing on extrajudicial killings on the same day said that there were only 1,105 (401 less) deaths. According to him, the figure was obtained after validation by its Directorate for Operations.

No EJK, Only Homicide

As for the terms, the media used “extrajudicial killings” or “vigilante” to refer to the people killed outside of police operations during the drug war early in 2016. The term was used in July 2016, when De Lima encouraged the senate to investigate the series of killings of drug suspects as outside of police operations as some of these may have been outside of police ops but perpetrated still by state agents. But media reports did not always capture the nuance of the discussion and used EJK loosely to refer to all kinds of killings.

Since the start of the drug war, the police had been using “death under investigation” (DUI). At the start of the drug war the PNP had been using different terms to refer to such killings: DUI in their releases and vigilante-style killings in interviews. The police term used DUI in March onwards.

On March 2017, PNP Chief Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa in a press conference said that there were no EJKs only homicide cases and blamed the media reports for the confusion. It was also in March when the PNP started using the term homicide cases under investigation (HCUI) instead of DUI in their press releases.

Complicating the numbers further was the game of musical chairs which the government also played throughout 2017, transferring Tokhang operations from PNP to PDEA and back to PNP again.

(See: “Tokhang Take Two: Covering the PNP’s Return to the Drug War” and “A Game of Musical Chairs: Drug War Back to PDEA”)


CMFR reviewed all PNP social cards and PNP statistics reported by the media as well as independent death counts of fatalities from July 1, 2016 to January 17, 2018.

PNP Figures: Sporadic Rise and Fall

Following #RealNumbers, the standing count of drug war deaths as of January 17, 2018 was 8,044 (including DUI), 40.41 percent lower from the 13,498 deaths (including DUI) in June 2017. Human Rights advocates had been using the figure 13,000 to make the point of excessive killings under the administration’s bloody crusade.

Before It Went Down

The number of deaths under investigation or homicide cases under investigation dropped more than a thousand in January 2017 from the numbers in December 2016. But the PNP did not reveal the results of the investigation to show which cases now moved from one category to another.

From 9,432 cases in March 2017 the number of DUI went down to 7,888 in April. The PNP had not released the numbers of homicide cases on May and June. It went up to 8,200 in July. No social cards were released in August to December. The latest was released on January 17, 2018 with the homicide cases already down to 1,822.

The 6,378 discrepancy in the DUI can be interpreted as cases solved. Interestingly, none of them were classified as drug-related. What is more interesting is that the 2,290 cases of drug-related deaths outside of police operations decreased to 2,235 in the recent PNP social cards.

Independent Media Counts: Less than PNP’s

Among the media organizations, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, news.ABS-CBN.com and Rappler reported drug war figures consistently. Inquirer created the “Kill List,” a list of people murdered since the implementation of Oplan Tokhang. But the paper stopped its listing on February 4, 2017.

Rappler published “In the Numbers: War on Drugs” in September 2016 based on PNP data and statistics. The story was last updated April 2017, with the January 2017 PNP statistics.

ABS-CBN News website count deaths based on their own research. ABS-CBN’s statistics is updated regularly.

Based on the independent counts, if not quoting the PNP or the HR advocates, the press had lower death statistics compared to the police.

NOTE: Rappler and PNP Numbers were those killed in the line of duty. Inquirer and ABS-CBN News Online included those who are killed outside of police operations.