EXPLAINER: Versions clash on issues in police raid on USC retreat house. Charges, investigations will help sort out the story but key question may persist: Were the children exploited?

CEBU. Jomar Binag, 21, of Poblacion, Compostela Valley, Davao de Oro, is arrested by members of the Police Regional Office-Central Visayas on February 15, 2021, for his role in the alleged kidnapping and trafficking of 19 minors whom police "rescued" in an operation at the retreat house of the University of San Carlos-Talamban Campus in Cebu City. (Benjie Talisic)

THE INCIDENT. Last Monday, February 15, police, accompanied by social welfare personnel, raided the Talamban, Cebu City campus of University of San Carlos and "rescued" 19 Lumad children from Davao del Norte from alleged kidnapping by a militant group and arrested seven adults suspected of kidnapping and exploiting the minors.

Police said six parents of the children came to Cebu City to "retrieve" their kids after complaining that the minors were taken by a group called Salugpungan 'Ta Tanu Igkanogon Community without their consent. They were allegedly told they were to go to Davao City for their schooling but were brought instead to Cebu City where they stayed at USC's retreat house in Talamban.

THE FALLOUT. Necessary and incidental consequences of the incident have included:

[1] The filing Thursday (February 18) with Davao del Norte prosecutor's office in Tagum City the charges of kidnapping with serious illegal detention and violations of the human trafficking laws against two Manobo tribal leaders, two teachers and three adult Lumad students. Complainants were the six parents.

[2] Investigation, announced Tuesday (February 16) by the Commission on Human Rights of the Cebu City "rescue" incident, whether any law on rights of individuals was violated.

[3] Bayan Muna Party List congressman Carlos Zarate announced Monday (February 15) his plan to seek a congressional investigation into the "Gestapo-like police abduction of the children" from the United Bakwit School program. The Makabayan bloc filed a resolution Wednesday (February 17) asking the House committee on human rights to condemn and investigate the "violent raid and arrest."

[4] Organizations and individuals in Cebu City and elsewhere expectedly condemned or supported the police operation, depending upon how it affected their advocacy or interest.

CORE ISSUES are three, which are related to the criminal charges, CHR probe, and possible congressional investigation:

(a) Were the minors "kidnapped," forced or misled into joining the group and exploited within the meaning of the law against human trafficking?

(b) Were human rights violated during the raid, in the "rescue" of the children and the arrest of the adults? Was protocol followed in an operation where the target includes children, innocent or in conflict with the law?

(b) Were the minors indoctrinated, made to join demonstrations against the government or any of its agencies or programs or, worse, being trained to become NPA foot soldiers?

Or was the raid just an extension of an alleged systematic offensive of the police and military against alleged communist recruitment in schools.

CLASHING VERSIONS. The Salugpungan group and the SOS Network contend that they adopted the "Bakwit" or evacuees program after the schools for indigenous students in Davao were closed by the military. USC confirmed that the students were accommodated by the university at the request of the Archdiocese of Cebu and were to complete their modular schooling last April and were scheduled to return to Davao in batches but were stranded in Cebu because of the Covid-19 lockdown.

Police say they acted on the complaint of the six parents who sought their help after their children have not returned home for two years. They claim there was no irregularity in the "rescue" and raid. They brought along some DSWD personnel and PNP women's and children's desk officers.

The alleged closure of the Lumad schools in Davao on suspicion they were used to recruit and train future NPAs and the evacuation of the schools to places like Cebu provide the background to help understand the conflict that led to the Talamban rescue and raid.

RELATED, SIDE QUESTIONS. To resolve the core issues, investigators will have to tackle related side questions, such as:

(1) If the SOS Network had the written consent of the parents of the minors, was it freely obtained, with full knowledge of what the father or mother was signing?

(2) Whether a permit was required from Department of Education for SOS Network to run and for USC to host the class, and if it was, did the group and the university secure the permit?

(3) Police say there was no irregularity in the raid. Initial reports didn't say whether they were armed with a warrant, or what justified the warrantless arrest.

(4) Police say they were studying the participation of USC and its officials, which could be a bluff. Studying whom to include in the charge sheet is routine. But publicizing it could be needless.

'CHAOTIC' RAID. Police may opt to tell the public why the raid was "chaotic," as described Thursday (February 18) by CHR investigator Leo Villarino to ANC.

CHR's assessment tended to confirm the image projected by an SOS video of children screaming as they were taken from their room at USC Talamban by the police. Apparently, the police didn't coordinate with the SVD officials of the school. Were they afraid the suspected criminals would escape?

SENSITIVE STORY. Most reporters and editors knew on sight that the story was controversial and could provoke heated and partisan reactions. Given the UP Diliman and red-tagging controversy, the warning flags in the Cebu incident were up and visible.

The core and related issues raised or revved up by the Talamban incident must have alerted the journalists handling the story.

The news reports needed to present background and try harder at fairness. Audiences needed to understand that each side was claiming a story different from the other's version.

The clashing narratives were easy enough to get; verifying their truth was not. The people who could help nail down the "correct facts" were not immediately available to media or media had scarce resources to reach them: the rescued Lumad children and the arrested adults were whisked away and could not be reached by smartphone. What media got were hearsays or spokespersons who had their respective interests to defend.

INITIAL CHR FINDING. Media outfits publish as the story develops and becomes available at the news cycle's turn. But often, they do not or cannot do their own digging. They have to rely on official sources.

For example, Thursday (February 18), Leo Villarrino, an investigator of CHR-Central Visayas, disclosed to ANC that from his interviews with the students, "there was no force or intimidation, (they were not) taken against their will, an element of kidnapping."

Villarino added, citing the statement of the social worker who headed the DSWD people assigned to the Lumad children: "They were not indoctrinated to join the communist movement, the agency also found."

ANC reporters did not talk with the students or the social worker. The CHR official did.

COMPETING FOR PUBLIC OPINION. The story is far from over. The CHR's initial finding won't affect yet the criminal charges of kidnapping and human trafficking. The police might present contrary evidence to shoot it down.

Meanwhile, competition to win public opinion between the authorities and its critics continues to be waged, with each side sometimes accusing the other of manipulating events and tampering with facts.

Media won't be spared from, or daunted by, the cross-fire. The reason is thus more compelling for reporters and editors in the "daily media" to get their facts right and help get the answer to the key questions, such as, were the Lumad children exploited and by whom?

Despite or because of the conflicting stories, readers and audiences must be told the discrepancies in the narratives. That could help the public pick the version that was closer to the truth.


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