Seares: Journalists as witnesses in illegal drugs campaign: what’s wrong with the practice

WHEN Gen. Debold Sinas, regional police chief, talked last Sept. 20 at a Cebu Press Freedom Week 2018 forum in Cebu City about media persons acting as witnesses to seizure of illegal drugs, he exposed the practice of the police in paying them for the service.

That surprised the audience, members and guests of the Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC), many of whom didn’t know witnesses were paid for signing the inventory of the alleged contraband.

Money for signature

Debold mentioned only about payment to media representatives, not to the Department of Justice member, usually an assistant prosecutor, and an elected public official, usually a barangay captain or councilor. The three serve as independent witnesses to the inventory of drugs seized during a buy bust, a raid or an arrest.

Sinas said the amount paid to journalists ranged from P1,000 to P1,500. Whatever it is called – stipend, incentive or allowance – that was not known to the public and, among media, apparently only those who cover the police and military beat knew about it. But it is what it looks like: money is paid for the signature.

Earlier, when controversy over alleged involvement of police in Cebu killings erupted, Sinas hinted that a number of reporters were linked to the drugs campaign. At the Press Week forum, fleshed out with some details, it turned out to be a case of some reporters accepting money for witnessing.

NUJP concerns

That aspect was not raised by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) when it argued for scrapping of the law’s provision that includes a media representative among the witnesses. It raised serious concerns though, such as:

• Police allegedly coercing beat reporters to cooperate by alternative threat of shutout from, or promise of access to, information from PNP news sources;

• Drug traffickers possibly going after journalists who witness against them.

No report, complaint

NUJP has not specified the incidents on which it based the accusation that police could be using coercion or seduction in getting the media witness.

In Cebu, there has been no complaint or report about the police using access to information for trade-off with beat reporters. Instead, what we have is the word of General Sinas that they’re paying journalists who serve as witnesses.

Duty of both

Which is acceptable: witnessing for (a) the information from PNP officials as news sources or for (b) the money paid for the service? Neither. It’s the duty of the police to provide the information just as it’s the duty of media to publish the information. As to the cash paid, two reporters justified it as not actual payment but mere “coffee or transportation money.”

The problem is that to some reporters, the amount is sizable enough to seek out the work. Worse, it might persuade a media witness to sign even if he didn’t watch or was not present when the inventory was made.

No longer required

Here’s what the police and media may need to be reminded: The Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Law of 2002 (Republic Act #9165) no longer requires a media representative as witness to the inventory. The amendment made by R.A. #10640 of 2014 made that optional. So police need not scour for and pay a journalist to serve as witness.

The journalist, it may be pointed out, can also refuse. He may cite newsroom policy prohibiting journalists from testifying unless required by court order or subpoena from Congress. And the standard in prudent journalism that the reporter, editor or columnist is not part of the news; he reports or comments on the news and does not take part in it.

• • •

Must the law be changed? Media witness not required

A CAMPAIGN waged by NUJP, called Sign against the Sign, calls for scrapping the requirement of a media witness from the law. Media witnessing is already optional but NUJP wants it abolished altogether.

The police may be asked not to involve journalists anymore as witnesses. Better still, news organizations may impose the ban on their reporters as newsroom policy.

No need to change the law; organizational norms and self-discipline by the media practitioner will suffice. It’s just one temptation among other temptations to which a journalist is exposed.


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