Right before the inaugural as president of Rodrigo R. Duterte and the launch of his so-called war on drugs, I got an interview with a police general about a homegrown information system of the Philippine National Police (PNP). For the most part, it went on smoothly, except for a not-so-subtle threat of retribution from the general if I should, in any way, “misquote” him.
Days later, the general got a promotion under the new administration. Little did I realize that that quick hostile moment with a police source would just be a preview of an extended narrative of an inimical relationship I would have with the police, especially when it comes to accessing information on Duterte’s war on illegal drugs.
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.
As months passed, and even after Mr. Duterte had issued a Freedom of Information executive order, the PNP responded to dozens of letters I sent to secure more information in ways more and more opaque.
In the early months, I could still access regional breakdowns of police data on the drug war and set interviews directly with police sources.
In time, the police started to enforce stricter rules on media-related requests, a policy that it strictly enforced soon after. All requests would now have to be coursed through the PNP National Headquarters’ Public Information Office. Additional waiting time and more rules have put access requests in peril.
The previous waiting time of two weeks to two months, stretched on for much longer. In cases when the response I received did not fully cover the specified data I had requested, I needed to write separate letters again, and wait for the process to start and end again, across more weeks or months.
I started receiving replies on requests for regional-level drug war data that offered no real action but plain denials. I was told that the police units could not grant access to the requested data as “they are considered classified matters and disclosure of such information may compromise the effectiveness of the conducted activities in relation to the abovementioned project.”
Early last year, intelligence officers from the Quezon City Police District twice visited the office looking for me. This happened after I filed with them a request for drug war data. The visits were made to allegedly confirm my identity, even as I had actually furnished them earlier with a scanned copy of my Media ID and a certificate of employment from PCIJ. The PCIJ admin called the police district to demand an explanation and to issue a firm reminder that the information the police said they wanted had precisely been submitted to them earlier.
Ironically, these visits happened after I had already filed more than a hundred requests for documents and data with the PNP National Headquarters, its regional offices, and its Metro Manila districts. I even personally interviewed the QCPD District Director at the time just a few weeks prior.
And despite the visits, the requests I filed with the QCPD yielded just two results: full denial of the request and copies of mere aggregate data — far from what were specified in the requests.
The PNP has set up all sorts of hoops and obstacles for the media to be able to access and secure information on the drug war. One is wont to ask: What are the police trying to hide?
History and the rise and fall of despots have proved the persistence and resilience of Filipino journalists. It is only a matter of time before we all find out what secrets the police want to keep. Stay tuned.