A law in the Philippines enables law enforcement to coerce media workers into acting as witnesses to anti-drug operations or the inventory registering of seized narcotics. The practice raises serious safety concerns, and must be ended immediately, says a coalition of six Philippine media groups in a joint push to end the practice
The Philippine government’s war on drugs has since mid-2016 made headlines across the world for its blanket “neutralization of illegal drug trade” approach, as termed in the Philippine National Police’s Command Memorandum Circular[i]. Media workers were caught up in these actions with a law that initially required journalists to be among the witnesses to anti-drug operations and/or the inventory of seized narcotics – a law that has since been amended, making it optional instead of mandatory to witness these undertakings.
However, according to the statement issued by the media groups on 6 November, they have received several reports of law enforcers using the law to coerce news personnel into signing on as witnesses – even if they were not actually present at the operations or inventories – or risk being excluded from future coverage or receiving information.
Six different media groups thus launched the “Sign Against the Sign” campaign, a signature drive for journalists, the campus press, and communications students and teachers, to demand the amendment of RA 9165 to exclude media practitioners as witnesses to anti-drug operations and/or the inventory of seized narcotics.
While the law is, in itself, an amendment of the original statute, making it optional instead of mandatory for journalists to be among the witnesses to these undertakings, we have received so many reports of law enforcers using the law to coerce news personnel into signing on as witnesses – even if they were not actually present at the operations or inventories – or risk being excluded from future coverage or receiving information. This has posed ethical, as well as legal dilemmas for the journalists involved who may have felt they had little choice but to accede to what the six media groups describe as “unlawful” demands. And those who decline can find their sources or the normal channels of information no longer accessible.
The issue of safety is also a main concern of the six media groups who emphasise in their joint call for law enforcement to end the practice of using media workers as witnesses in anti-drug operations.
According to the group it unnecessarily places journalists at risk of retaliation from crime syndicates, on the one hand, and exposes them to prosecution for perjury and other offenses in the event of irregularities in the conduct of anti-drug operations, on the other.
For this reason, the media groups have invited the Philippine National Police and Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency to discuss guidelines, ground rules and other procedural issues concerning coverage of their operations. They also call for the option of making journalists witnesses to anti-drug operations and inventories to be removed altogether from the law.