THE STORIES are tragic. They are horrifying and shocking. They are too compelling for any journalist to ignore.
But, as the bodies started to pile up, the stories became more difficult to report to report. Government officials seem to want to bury the victims as mere statistics in President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drugs.
Journalists have had to rely on data-driven journalism and lots of leg work, devote many hours talking to victims, their families, witnesses, and police investigators; and review investigation reports and other documents; and immersing in the commuunity. Over time, it became more difficult to obtain documents because of official restrictions.
As soon as Duterte assumed office in mid-2016, Reuters began looking into the bloody campaign against illegal drugs, reporting the tragic stories of victims, and putting names and faces to the statistics. But there are bigger stories to tell, such as finding out who are the people behind these killings?
This story and other “Voices from the Frontlines” dispatches form part of the state of press freedom report, “Speak Truth to Power, Keep Power in Check”, produced by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, and Philippine Press Institute, to mark World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2018.
This is where good old journalism techniques matter. I have covered the police and military beats for a long time, starting as a graveyard shift crime/police reporter for People’s Journal Tonight in 1984 in one of the capital’s crime-prone cities.
Journalism skills are learned in the police beat, especially at night when you are on your own but is still expected to deliver stories. There are no officials and spokesmen available at night so journalists have to be resourceful and cultivate their own sources inside the police and outside with people who interact with the police.
Yet still, corruption is a big problem in Philippine society, including in the press. There is real danger or risk that the system would suck in journalists, and prevent them from doing their watchdog role to report public-interest issues, and expose irregularities in the police force.
Close relationships and too much familiarity with news sources can be a problem when journalists choose to close their eyes on corruption and other wrongdoings.
But, keeping a professional distance from news sources, and guarding one’s dignity and integrity will help build a reputation that can define a journalist’s character.
Relationships anchored on trust and news sources will trust journalists who they think are fair, honest, and professional. That was what I realized when Reuters was doing the sensitive stories of uncovering the truth behind the drug war killings.
Reuters found sources inside the police who trusted journalists with information about the mechanics of the drug war, the rewards list and the staged encounters. These sources freely showed to Reuters journalists their mobile phones where text messages from senior regional officials ordering them to do things related to the drugs war.
These are courageous police officers who shared sensitive information to journalists who they believe can be trusted.
Philippine journalism is not perfect. It has many problems but if journalists would remain professional, fair, and not biased, and continue to uphold the truth, democracy will not die in this country.
* Filipino journalist Manny Mogato and Reuters colleagues Clare Baldwin and Andrew R.C. Marshall were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in April 2018 for “relentless reporting that exposed the brutal killing campaign behind Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.”— PCIJ, May 2018