OPINION: Living dangerously: Investigative reporting from Marcos to Duterte

Raissa Robles

Posted at Nov 23 2017 04:11 AM

I would like to share with you all the complete text of my presentation entitled Living Dangerously: Investigative Reporting from Marcos to Duterte.

I delivered a much shorter version of this presentation at the University of California Berkeley. Graduate School of Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program headed by director John Temple. John asked me to be up close and personal about investigative reporting. I am not used to talking about myself but I tried to.

John Temple, Pulitzer Prize-winning director of the Graduate School of Journalism’s UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program, and author-investigative reporter Raissa Robles

At the end, I have posted the video of my actual presentation, which was followed by a Q and A.

# # #

Living dangerously: Investigative Reporting from Marcos to Duterte

Good afternoon.

I’m deeply honored to be with you all today. Before I go on, I would like to thank John Temple, director of the University of California Berkeley Investigative Reporting Program, for inviting me.

When I first talked to him, I could sense he must be a tough but fair editor and I’m glad I passed his test.

I would also like to thank Julie Hirano, the assistant to the Dean and the Events coordinator, for taking care of the nitty gritty. People like Julie are the hidden treasures of every organization.

Briefly, I would like to thank the Philippine- American Writers and Artists Inc. or PAWA, its board of directors and its President, Edwin Lozada, who made my first US trip happen.

Edwin Lozada is also the Director of the just-concluded Filipino American International Book Festival. Three ladies put together my very tough and events-filled schedule: Susan Po-Rufino, a member of the clan which owns back in Manila Popular Book Store – the lone book store during Marcos’ Martial Law where you could secretly buy politically banned books; Author Mila de Guzman, who recently wrote Women Against Marcos, Stories of Filipino and Filipino American Women Who Fought A Dictator. And Leni Marin, former senior Vice-President of the NGO Futures without Violence.

Finally, I would like to thank my husband, Alan, my tough editor and news partner. Our breakfasts are like daily news conferences. We work as a team. And my publisher Filipinos for a Better Philippines which had the courage to publish my book Marcos Martial Law: Never Again. The trustees are mainly retired Ateneo de Manila University graduates who wanted to embed the national catastrophe of authoritarianism into the nation’s collective memory.

# # #

What is it like doing investigative reporting in the Philippines?

Sunshine—has a magical quality in Manila where I live, especially after a monster storm. It makes many things look bright and fresh and full of hope.

A year into the Duterte presidency, sunshine for me has taken on an even more dazzling quality. When I look at the trees, with the sunlight bouncing off the leaves, it brings the preciousness of life to hyper focus. Especially, against the backdrop of knowing that at least 10,000 funerals have been held in just one year because of Duterte’s “war on drugs”.

Many Filipino journalists including me are acutely aware that at any time of the day or night we, too, could be arrested or killed.

In a snap. This is why one journalist I know always covers with a passport in his bag just in case.

Under Duterte, death comes in the form of “tandems” – two people riding a motorcycle. One drives, the other behind him shoots. Some say these killers are actually policemen.

Reporters are not special, as President Duterte himself bluntly pointed out during his first post-victory press conference of May 21 last year. He said on national TV, “just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch.”

He said: “Most of those killed, to be frank, have done something. You won’t be killed if you don’t do anything wrong.”

He asserted that most of the journalists killed had taken bribes or were corrupt. He was quite clear: “Freedom of expression won’t save you. The Constitution cannot help you if you smear a person.”

This is the kind of president we have.

President Duterte is right about one thing. Just because we are journalists, we are not exempted from assassination.

But who decides whether we are sonsofabitches? Who decides whether we are writing stories in exchange for bribes?

Most politicians look on investigative reporting as a smear job intended to ruin their reputation, never mind the truth behind the allegations raised by the report. And in my country, I remember a quote to the effect that it’s cheaper to hire an assassin than a lawyer. The Philippines has always had a reputation for being one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist.

# # #

During the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, matters were straightforward. The press was strictly controlled and censored. Marcos’ cronies owned all the major dailies and broadcast studios and regularly put out state propaganda. There were small alternative papers—the “mosquito press, as we called it – but they functioned under constant threat. Some of their staff were arrested as “subversives” and their operation closed down arbitrarily. One small newspaper, We Forum, that published an investigative report revealing Marcos’ war record was bogus was abruptly closed down. The financial daily I worked for, Business Day, was about to run a report on the coconut monopoly established by Marcos’ cronies.

The editor got a call from one crony who asked if it was true some staffers who wrote the report were in the military “order of battle” as communist subversives.

Back then “subversive” was the convenient word the dictatorship used to describe critics, enemies and victims.

My publisher got the hint and didn’t publish the report.

Ironically, writing for that business paper during the dictatorship, I was able to write what turned out to be an investigative report. It was a 14-part series on how Marcos engineered a constitutional convention to create a new constitution that would underpin his dictatorship.

I did not know it then that I was doing investigative reporting. I only knew that I wanted to find out why the 1973 Philippine Constitution gave so much powers to the President, to the point that no one else could contradict what he says or does. How did Marcos legitimize his dictatorship with a new Constitution?

Looking back, I am amazed that the editor-owners of Business Day, Raul and Leticia Locsin, gave me three months off with pay and doing nothing else but investigate during the darkest days of Martial Law the making of the 1973 Constitution.

Business Day published my 14-part series without censorship. I learned a valuable lesson from this – that it is important to interview as many sides of the issue. Even the “villains” have to be interviewed. Their points of view might be twisted but this has to be presented to give a balanced and fair report.

So I went out of my way to interview Marcos’ closest political allies, who engineered his makeover as a dictator.

Perhaps because, when my report was published, the country was being convulsed by political turmoil—Aquino had been assassinated—there was no backlash from the government.

Was I ever afraid of being arrested? I had no communist ties or leanings. However, I did have Mao Zedong’s small Red Book because I was curious why so many thought his ideology was to-die-for. It was only when I recently did research for my Martial Law book that I learned that mere possession of such subversive literature would have landed me in jail.

When I started as a newbie reporter, I was a political virgin. I was still observing a sundown curfew imposed by my father who said—for as long as you live in my house you abide by my rules. And so I left and rented an apartment nearby. It wasn’t something a woman did then without getting married first. But I wanted freedom. To write. To investigate.

The fruit was my 14-part series on the Constitution.

It was only after my father died in the year 2000 that my mother handed to me a bundle wrapped in brown paper. My father had gathered my entire 14-part series, parts of which I had lost through the years.

As far as I remember very few journalists were murdered during the Marcos regime—there was no need for it, nearly all media people toed the line after several hundreds were arrested and tortured. Those who didn’t follow the rules were fired or “invited” for questioning by the military.

But after Marcos was chased out of the country and democracy and press freedom restored, the killing of journalists continued.

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Objectively speaking, four killings during President Rodrigo Duterte’s first year in office is not unusual. Four journalists were also killed in the first year of Duterte’s predecessor President Benigno Noynoy Aquino III. Three each in the first 12 months of Presidents Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Joseph Estrada; five for the same period under President Fidel V. Ramos; and one under democracy’s icon, President Corazon Aquino.

If you look at the terms of all five previous presidents, the murders of journalists are at an astounding level:

21 under President Cory Aquino
11 under President Ramos
6 under President Estrada

A shocking 82 under President Gloria Arroyo, all because two of her political allies in the province of Maguindanao squabbled over who should run for governor and one of them—the Ampatuan political clan—decided that the best way to resolve the contest was to wipe the other out literally.

To complete the picture, there were also 35 killed under President Benigno Aquino III.

Among all the killings, however, the massacre of 34 male and female journalists on November 23, 2009 during Arroyo’s presidency set a world record in impunity and attack on press freedom.

It was President Arroyo who made Duterte her anti-crime czar. She praised what Duterte did in Davao City. Ironically, it was during Arroyo’s presidency when Duterte was first investigated for extra-judicial killings or EJK in Davao by Arroyo’s appointed Human Rights Commissioner Leila de Lima – the same person whom Duterte has jailed for alleged drug trafficking and whom he has bashed for investigating him for EJKs.

# # #

In Duterte’s first year in office, four journalists were separately killed in the countryside by gun men on motorbikes.

Community newspaper publisher Larry Que was shot dead on December 19, 2016, just after publishing an investigative report linking the provincial governor of Catanduanes province to a newly-discovered meth lab there.

Last Friday October 6, the Philippine National Police officially announced Larry Que’s murder as a case of extra-judicial killing or EJK, meaning a rubout by someone employed by the state. But hours later, the PNP took it back and said there was yet no officially confirmed case of EJK under the Duterte administration.

Radio announcer Mario Contaoi was shot six times on January 6, 2017 in Zamboanga del Sur province on the southern island of Mindanao. In the same province on August 6, 2017, radio anchor Rudy Alicaway was on a motorbike when two men riding in tandem gave chase and one of them shot him thrice.

The next day August 7, in Mindanao’s Sultan Kudarat province, columnist Leo Diaz had just written an expose accusing a government official of graft. He was shot dead by two men by a gun man riding in tandem on a motorbike.

None of the murdered journalists has been linked by the police to any corrupt dealings or to drugs.

In the capital Manila where I work, two former journalists were recently murdered for non-media-related reasons. One of them, retired BusinessWorld online editor Michael Marasigan who was my former colleague in Business Day, was ambushed by a tandem and shot more than 30 times. The assassin reloaded.
He clearly wanted to make sure his target was dead. It was no ordinary murder. It was a gangland-style execution.

But, knock on wood, no active journalist has been rubbed out in the nation’s capital.


# # #

However, my colleagues and I have been subjected to other forms of harassment and intimidation for writing stories investigating Duterte’s policies, especially his “war” on drugs.

The Manila office of Reuters News Service has been visited by the police wanting to verify the identity of a certain foreign national who had requested police reports on drug-related killings.

The local news website Rappler which has been continuously running investigative stories on Duterte and his drug war has also been similarly visited by the police, ostensibly to check whether a new reporter also asking to look at police files really worked for Rappler.

I call this a form of intimidation because the police officers could simply have phoned the Reuters and Rappler offices.

[NOTE: At that time of my presentation, I could not verify the police visitation at the office of Vera Files so I didn’t include it. I have since verified it. The police came to visit, asked the same questions, plus something else. The police wanted to know who were working for Vera Files, how much their salaries were and if Vera Files was earning.]

Such police visits have occurred only once since the Marcoses were ousted in 1986. On February 25, 2006, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo ordered the office of the Daily Tribune tabloid raided by state forces after she proclaimed “a state of national emergency”, following attempts to unseat her.

Since Duterte assumed office, a systematic and vicious online campaign has been going on to smear all journalists critical of Duterte’s drug war.


It’s but a short step to persuading the digital mob and Duterte’s rabid followers and vigilante killers that journalists—like drug addicts—are fair game for execution.

This one, for instance, repeatedly tweeted to me – “you need to die now.”

I am not the only one being threatened this way. Jam Sisante of GMA TV news followed up President Duterte’s accusation that his political nemesis Senator Antonio Trillanes had a hidden bank account in Singapore. After her story aired, she received a private message through Facebook accusing her of being paid by Trillanes and warning her that if she did not watch out, her corpse would be stuffed in a sack.

The Philippines’ Revised Penal Code would classify the messages that I and Jam received online as “grave threats”. But it’s doubtful that a journalist who complains would be given the time of day. Because the complaint would naturally fall under the National Bureau of Investigation’s anti-cybercrime division. The NBI is under the Department of Justice.

And Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre accused the media two months ago of being paid by the drug lords in order to derail Duterte’s drug war.

Two Reuters reporters—Manuel Mogato and Karen Lerma—were specifically singled out for online bashing –

after they correctly quoted Duterte comparing himself to Hitler.

Rappler’s Malacanang Palace reporter, Pia Ranada-Robles, has been unfairly bashed online, called many names including c**t. Because she dared to ask Duterte pointed questions about why he had whistled at a female reporter. And because her last name was Robles. Like mine.

Duterte supporters circulated this meme online:

Even when I said on Twitter and on Facebook that I had never met Pia nor her husband surnamed Robles and we weren’t at all related, the malicious propaganda went on. Well, it died down a bit after I started calling those who persisted on spreading the lie as “idiots”. And others retweeted it with glee.

The largest broadcast network ABS-CBN, which continues to probe Duterte’s war on drugs, has also been threatened by the president with non-renewal of its license to operate, which expires in 2020.

The top-selling newspaper Philippine Daily Inquirer, that has run investigative reports highly critical of Duterte’s drug war, is poised to change ownership after Duterte launched blistering attacks against the Prieto family who own controlling shares.

Inquirer took out its reporter Marlon Ramos from Malacañang. I received two versions why this happened. First I was told it was part of the regular reshuffle. But I was also told by an impeachable source it was upon the Palace’s “special request”. It apparently didn’t appreciate Marlon’s pointed questions during press conferences.

Given what Marlon has gone through, it’s understandable why he held up this sign last September 21, the recent anniversary of Marcos’ declaration of Martial Law –

As for me, given all that has been happening,

Including being called a paid hack of former President Benigno Aquino III and a daughter of Communist Party founder Jose Maria Sison—I don’t know in what planet the Duterte supporters think it’s possible for me to be both, given that President Noynoy Aquino and Joma Sison despise each other.

The only reason I have a photo with Joma Sison is that I interviewed him in Utrecht for the first time for my Marcos Martial Law book. Separately, I interviewed former President Aquino for South China Morning Post and my book.

# # #

I must confess that due to all the bashing and online threats directed against me, I found myself unable to finish my investigative stories on Duterte’s drug war.

It was partly writer’s block but mainly fear. And also sadness when I found some of my personal friends and media colleagues supporting Duterte. I myself initially liked Duterte’s initiatives to hold peace talks with the Muslim and communist rebels. I agreed with his stance against mining and rooted for his plan to ban labor-only contracting.

But I became deeply alarmed by his closeness to the Marcos family and his vow to kill 100,000 criminals and dump their bodies in Manila Bay that the “fish will grow fat.”

Even if this was an exaggeration, there were already previous reports of mysterious killings in Davao City while he was the mayor. Way back in 2009, I had written about it for The Morning Post, wherein I mentioned a 103-page report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch. The report mentioned that mysterious killings in Davao rose from two in 1998 to 124 in 2008.

Human Rights watch said: ‘We found evidence of complicity and at times direct involvement of government officials and members of the police in killings by the so-called Davao Death Squad.”

It concluded that “the words and actions of long-time Davao city Mayor Rodrigo Duterte… indicate his support for targeted killings of criminal suspects’, but the report did not name him as the mastermind.

[NOTE: You can read my entire article by clicking on this link.]

Because of this report, I expressed my personal fear and frustrations that the victory of Duterte would usher in a period of bloodbath.

I wrote on Facebook and Twitter on the eve of the presidential elections:

“To all those backing Duterte, just remember, when the killings start, you should be beside him. All the way. Even after the river of blood overflows. Stand by him and tell yourself you helped the blood flow. You are very much a part of it. Don’t wash your hands off it. Be proud of what you’ve done.”

That single post went viral and unleashed a storm of invectives, insults and malevolent wishes for my early death.

As a journalist, did I have the right to post what I did? Or did I step beyond the bounds of fair play and impartiality.

I believe a journalist does different kinds of writing. I’ve always considered Facebook and Twitter more like opinion writing. When I wrote that, I based it on my previous knowledge of Duterte, what he had threatened to do and what had actually happened in Davao. Plus, he extolled Marcos the dictator as a brilliant leader. Marcos did not care for human rights. Neither does Duterte.

Being a journalist under the Duterte administration has its own unique dangers. You won’t be arrested or censored by the government, but you can be attacked by its online propaganda apparatus. This is thousands, no, tens of thousands of supporters and trolls who, in cyberspace, attempt to shout you down, insult you, demean you, belittle your work, and fabricate facts to prove you’re “wrong.”

In investigative reporting, I always keep in mind what the poet Robert Frost wrote about discerning truth. He said,

We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.

# # #

Ferreting out the truth is paramount. There were times when I did investigative reporting where the basic facts uncovered a different conclusion.

For instance in 2012, when I started a probe on the unexplained wealth of Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona I decided to check out the corporation records at the Securities and Exchange Corporation of a company that Chief Justice Corona said had given him an P11 million peso cash advance that bumped up his assets in 2003.

To my surprise, the SEC had revoked the license of the said lending company in 2003, the same year he got his cash advance.

I could not believe my eyes when I found this out. And so I sought the opinion of legal experts who confirmed my finding. The Supreme Court Chief Justice was not telling the truth about his assets.

By that time, I had written a couple of blog posts about Chief Justice Corona. My blog was my outlet for investigative reporting since I was doing mostly hard news for South China Morning Post.

But since my blog was totally self-funded, I decided to write my investigative reports as a continuing story and not as one report of many pages.

The mainstream newspapers were ignoring my blog posts until I came out with this story, and ABS-CBN News picked it up. 

Later, even the Philippine Daily Inquirer was forced to write a news report about my blog posts when Chief Justice Corona at first, and then admitted that indeed a US property linked to his family was in the name of one of his daughters.


Before I close I would like to tell you a bit about my book Marcos Martial Law: Never Again, A brief History of Torture and Atrocity under the New Society. I had always longed for a historian to write a book on Martial Law. When the opportunity to do so was presented to me, I took up the challenge.

I realized, while writing it, that only an investigative reporter could have completed such a book because it is part history, part investigative report. The outline for the book made by my husband Alan was very ambitious. It included finding material from the viewpoint of torturers.

The most difficult part of the book was—how do I interview accused torturers without them getting angry at me? I had to rely on all my skills to get them to talk to me. And, I must confess, on God.

The result is this book which has interviews for the very first time of generals and colonels and even a former Philippine president talking about military torture for the first time.

In closing, I would like to challenge Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program with the following leads. The leads may be a dead end or may lead to possible future stories.

One – A source claimed to me that one of the political strategists of President Duterte’s campaign – which included vicious online bashing and fake news as political propaganda – was also involved in President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. That the Duterte campaign was in fact a test bed for such a campaign. My source told me to look at the link between the Manafort PR Group and the Marcos group and the Trump campaign group.

Two – During the 2016 election campaign, a Ukrainian went around the different campaign headquarters of the various presidential candidates offering his services to raise an army of online trolls for a fee in US dollars.

In 1985, the San Jose Mercury News in California ran a series of investigative reports on the Marcoses’ hidden wealth. It won the Pulitzer price the following year for international reporting.

Perhaps the Investigative Reporting Program of Berkeley under its Pulitzer Prize winning director John Temple could include as part of its investigation the link between the Trump campaign and the Duterte campaign. For starters.

[NOTE: Below is the link to the video of my actual presentation, followed by an open forum. I would also like to encourage you to join the online debate about my presentation on the UC Berkeley Youtube site.]

Watch more in iWant or TFC.tv

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.