Seares: Inventory of seized drugs: Are journalists required to join?

A “media man” and a prosecutor in Cebu were among the persons mentioned in a list released by Malacañang through the 888 hotline, according to an Aug. 12, 2018 column by Lloyd Suarez in Cebu Daily News.

The two local personalities were not identified as the report was still to be validated by R2 or intelligence arm of the police regional office. Most likely, it was still a raw tip or complaint, thus the need to verify it first.

But it raised to the surface the little known practice of the police to use journalists as witnesses to the inventory of illegal drugs seized or surrendered.

What law requires

Under Sec. 21 of Republic Act 9165 or Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, immediately after seizure or surrender of illegal drugs, the suspected contraband shall be photographed and inventoried, which shall be witnessed and signed by the suspect or his lawyer or another person on his behalf and representatives from the Department of Justice, the media and an elected public official.

Who among the media? It’s not like the media collectively appoints a representative for the task. The law does not specify who from media is qualified to be a witness and from where: print, broadcast or digital; mainstream or social media; regular staff, contributor or block-timer; accredited or non-accredited.

The penalty on drugs is stiff and the requirement of witnesses to the content and volume of the contraband may help enforce the law justly.

Absence of reps

What if the media person or any other representative required by the law were absent? The Supreme Court in the case of People vs. Sammy Umpang y Abdul (GR #190326 of April 25, 2012) said the absence of a witness or witnesses by itself does not invalidate the evidence.

The state needs only to show that it exerted efforts to get the witnesses and the lack of signatures on the inventory didn’t affect the “integrity” and “evidentiary value” of the confiscated items. Law enforcers who want to send the arrested persons to jail are diligent in securing the required witnesses.

Can’t be compelled

Which takes these questions up front:

• Can a media person be compelled to be a witness to the recording of the seizure or surrender of illegal drugs?

No, the law doesn’t say so. Except probably from a sense of civic duty, although his journalism work to a large extent already helps the community, And the journalist may need to get permission of his editor or manager as time would be taken off from his basic work.

Unlike the DOJ rep or the elected official, a journalist is not part of the government machinery. The journo may beg off from the job of witnessing the seizure. In contrast, barangay officials in Ermita, Cebu City could not: they were sued and suspended for failing or refusing to act as such witnesses.

• May a media person ask for or accept an allowance or stipend for his time and energy?

Lloyd Suarez in his column said the president of a group of beat reporters covering the police and other law enforcers had suggested to the agencies that journalists who witness an inventory be given “gas money” for their trouble. The “media man” who was named in the Malacañang hotline as a recipient of “weekly payola” denied to Lloyd that he was in the PDEA payroll. At most, the “media man” admitted, he received P500-P1,000 allowance each time he witnessed an inventory.

Subsidy, situation

The sticky situation created by the subsidy, petty as the amount may be, provides a valid reason not to join the government task. The witness ties himself to the duty of defending his signature and what it signifies in court. Worse, he may be exposed to the risk of being associated with law enforcers who are vulnerable to the wiles of, if not assault by, drug traffickers.

But on witnessing the inventory, the decision rests on the news outlet manager and, ultimately, the journalist himself: whether a news reporter must take time off from media work to take part in the government function.

• • •

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