As political watchers await the next move of Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte in the 2022 elections, a personality closely associated with the presidential family got her share of the spotlight this week: Jefry Tupas who was until recently Davao City Information Officer (CIO).
Tupas was identified as one of the guests present at a beach party held in a resort in Mabini town, Davao de Oro last Saturday.
In the said event, a drug raid was conducted by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) and National Bureau of Investigation (NBI). Seventeen people were arrested and charged for possession of party drugs, shabu and marijuana, all amounting to about P1.5 million.
A photo that circulated online and a statement by Tupas herself confirmed she was indeed at the event. But in her interview with ABS-CBN News, Tupas said she left early with her boyfriend and another friend because she had work the following day.
This statement was countered, however, by an interview published by Newsline Philippines with those supposedly apprehended during the November 6 raid. They maintain Tupas was at the venue when the arrest happened but was allowed to leave. According to one of those detained, the now ex-CIO allegedly approached the PDEA officers saying, “Sir, I am a staff of Inday Sara. What is happening here, sir?’”
Second to Bong Go
As Davao City’s CIO, Tupas was one of the go-to persons of media for information regarding the city’s events, Mayor Sara, and activities of the Duterte family. “Perhaps only Senator Bong Go could beat Tupas in terms of access to the Duterte patriarch and family,” wrote columnist and social media strategist Tonyo Cruz in an article published by Rappler.
Cruz described Tupas as “the imperious and sharp-tongued informal spokesperson of Mayor Sara Duterte.” He said her social media posts are the go-to for journalists local and foreign when it comes to activities of the First Family. Tupas, however, deactivated her Facebook account following the November 6 Davao de Oro raid.
Cruz said Mayor Sara “plucked [Tupas] out of activism and alternative media in 2016” and the CIO has exhibited changes in her personality since then.
From Jeffrey to Jefry
Tupas was born in the town of Kapalong, Davao del Norte. She spent most of her growing up years, however, in the Ilocano dominated community of Kabacan, North Cotabato. Her mother is a member of the Mandaya tribe while her father worked at the National Irrigation Administration in the province.
In an interview with the Daily Tribune in August 2020, Tupas shared her varied interests as a student. She was into music and “was a natural when it came to dancing.” She was fond of reading comics and magazines, which was how she developed a knack for writing. “I was in grade two when a grade five teacher would bring me to her class to demonstrate how to read to her pupils,” Tupas recalled. “She would tell them, ‘You have to learn from Jeffrey Tupas who reads well.’ In high school, I wrote for the school paper, but in college, my application with the university paper was turned down. Probably it was because I was too belligerent.”
Having grown up in the farmlands of Kabacan, Tupas did consider taking up Agriculture in college but ended up graduating with a Development Communication degree at the University of Southern Mindanao in the year 2000.
Tupas dabbled in media work after college. She was a reporter and news writer in a radio station of the Notre Dame Broadcasting Corporation (NC) in Kidapawan City. More than reporting, however, it was news writing she was drawn to, and her stint in radio opened doors for writing opportunities.
‘I am now a journalist’
Tupas eventually became a correspondent for the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) and Sun Star. “My first story for Inquirer came out in a section that was a round-up of regional stories and mine occupied quite a small space, but I was thrilled,” she told Tribune. “Finally, I am now a journalist, I told myself.”
Tupas was eventually sent by the PDI Mindanao chief to Pikit, Cotobato to cover an ongoing war in the area. This gave her a chance to write human interest stories, which turned out to be her strong suit. “My bureau chief cursed me when he read one story of mine, ‘P…I… mo, you made me cry.’ Soon, I was getting away with long stories, beyond the maximum number of words that we were allowed.”
Tupas eventually worked as a desk editor for a year in TV5. "He was my Desk Editor way back 2011-2012," TV5 reporter Gem Avancena tells ANCX. "He did not stay long so we never had a chance to know each other very well." Avancena, however, says Tupas was a cool boss. "He's very good in writing and I learned a lot from him. I remember him pushing me to always look for good stories by doing research."
Tupas looked different then, says the reporter, and had a simpler lifestyle. "At that time, we already knew he's gay but he was still wearing clothes for men," adds Avancena. "He doesn't have a car so he arrives in the office in a taxi or tricycle sometimes. He was very kind to me at that time. But when he became the CIO, he seemed to be a different 'Sir Jef' to us. He rarely replies to our inquiries. He also prefers to accomodate the national media first and disregard us most of the time in local."
After his stint in TV5, Tupas decided to put up her own online media service called NewsDesk.asia. In her LinkedIn profile, she describes the media agency as an independent initiative of freelance journalists in Mindanao.
“This is a realization of that long-desired platform that is to be wholly owned and managed by journalists and media workers themselves,” she wrote. “As an independent media group, it abrogates itself from the interests of media owners and media capitalists. Its accountability to the public is therefore not compromised.” https://www.facebook.com/newsdeskPH
One of the stories she wrote for the platform was “The Teachers of Rajah Muda”— her way of revisiting Pikit, a war-torn area. “The teachers were not only teaching what is taught in regular classrooms,” she shared. “They were involved in peace education.”
The 2015 European Union Peace Journalism Awards declared her grand winner for what she wrote. “One of the highlights of her 2015 trip to Europe was meeting top communist leaders Jose Maria Sison, Luis Jalandoni, and the late Fidel Agcaoili for an exclusive interview at the Amsterdam airport,” Cruz wrote in Rappler.
NewsDesk.asia lasted for two years.
The new Jefry
Tupas was invited to join the Duterte campaign camp in the 2016 elections. “We were not originally close but we were friends,” she said, describing her relationship with Mayor Sara then. “Then, she said that if I wanted to, I could join her at the City Hall. ‘You’re going to be the officer-in-charge of the Public Information Office,’ and I said yes.”
She was also invited to work in Malacañang but she said she preferred to stay in her hometown of Davao. “So, to this day, Mayor Inday Sarah and I continue to be friends. And, of course, she’s my boss,” she told Tribune.
The two-part interview also touched on Tupas’ sexuality, and how in those early days working for the Davao LGU she was still known as Jeffrey in the media circle. She admitted that being gay was something she was fighting since childhood. “Our world is very unkind to gay men. It is difficult to be in a gay’s situation,” Tupas said in the interview.
In 2020, she said she began to embrace her femininity, stepping out in heels, putting on makeup—very different from the Jeffrey of old who used to sport a more conservative hairstyle and wear geeky black-framed glasses. She admitted to having undergone alarplasty. “I had my nose improved.” When asked, she said she never considered sexual reassignment but that she “had been thinking of breast augmentation.”
Jefry said Mayor Sara had been very supportive of her decision. “To her, if it is your body, it’s your decision. It’s your life. As long as you don’t end up destroying your inner core, the essence of your person. I told Inday that I do not want to be flamboyant. So she asked me what I wanted. And I told her facial feminization is all I want. And then, I said, ‘Maybe you could sponsor my nose.’”
In his Rappler piece, Tonyo Cruz wrote that following the November 6 raid, journalists and activists from Mindanao were recalling personal encounters with Tupas. “They always expressed surprise over the ‘big change’ from being the ‘activist’ who asked them for assistance like free board-and-lodging during the presidential campaign, and for donations when she had to go to Brussels as a grand winner in the 2015 European Union Peace Journalism Awards.”
“Since 2016, though,” observed Cruz, “Tupas has kept her distance from or attacked journalists and activists, stayed close with the Dutertes, acquired expensive new tastes, and picked new sets of friends.”