Freelance photojournalist Vincent Go advised journalists covering human rights issues to go in groups if there are concerns about possible harassment.
“There is safety in numbers,” said Go at the Second National Conference on Investigative Journalism, during a breakout session on the challenges of covering human rights issues.
Go, who followed President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal campaign against illegal drugs since 2016, said tracking the cases has become more difficult in recent years because the number of journalists on the beat has decreased.
"May mga times matatakot ka kasi ikaw lang mag-isa yung nagshu-shoot sa isang crime scene…. There are times when lalapitan ka ng police officer, and sasabihin: 'I-delete mo ‘yang picture na yan' (There were times I feared for my safety because I was the only one taking photos of the crime scene…. There were times police officers approached me and told me to delete the pictures)," he said.
"Talagang iko-call mo ‘yung bluff nila minsan and [assert that] I don't have a violation. I'm just doing my job... (You really have to call their bluff and I had to assert that I don’t have a violation. I’m just doing my job),” he added.
Go’s photos have appeared on LiCAS News Philippines and ABS-CBN Online.
The virtual conference organized by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) highlighted the need to defend press freedom and human rights amid the decline of democracy in the country. (Read: Keynote speech of Marites Dañguilan Vitug at #IJconPH2021)
Go was joined by Brigada News TV head Jennifer Solis and Human Rights Watch - Asia Senior Research Carlos Conde at the breakout session. They discussed the difficulties confronting journalists during the Duterte administration.
Solis also lamented how cops have developed a pattern of sharing "templated" responses to media queries on criminal cases.
"They [police] would say, 'it's still an open case', or [these are] 'ongoing investigations’'.... While that is true, it makes it hard to get more information about some incidents because they keep repeating the same answers," she said.
“The police tend to forget about the investigations, so no new information is shared,” she added.
Journalists managed some workarounds. When the police refuse to share official reports, Go said he would ask the families of the victims to make the request for them instead.
"Sometimes, it's also the only way they can have proof that their family member was a victim in a police encounter," he added.
Solis echoed the suggestion. She said it also allows journalists to be more than just reporters of hard facts and numbers. They are able to gain the trust of their sources and serve as a bridge between them and civil society organizations that may offer assistance.
"I think we have an obligation… a responsibility to not just get information [from sources who are usually victims of human rights abuses], but help them [to know their rights],” she said.
Conde also emphasized the importance of collaboration between journalists and civil society organizations. Conde, who also used to be a longtime Philippine correspondent for The New York Times, noted how everyone can do better jobs working with each other.
“A lot of the journalists that are thriving... are journalists who have honed their craft, trained themselves, in reporting human rights stories. It's fertile ground,” Conde said.
“There's been collaboration happening for decades now... We [human rights advocates] know, we realize, we accept the fact that better human rights advocacy can only happen if we have journalists on our side,” he added.
— PCIJ, November 2021