Espinoza: Media, the unnecessary witness

Free Zone
Espinoza Free Zone
Espinoza Free Zone

Republic Act (RA) 9165, also known as the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act was approved on June 7, 2002. It repealed RA 6425, or the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1972, and imposed stiffer penalties, such as life imprisonment, to combat the rise of the illegal drugs menace in the country.

RA 6425 was repealed by RA 9165 because it lacked the teeth or the tools to go after illegal drugs syndicates, dealers and pushers. The imposable penalty was like a pat on the back of the culprits. The penalty for possession or use of prohibited drugs was only four years imprisonment. The accused could even apply for probation and avoid jail term.

The big difference, though, in RA 9165 is that a member or representative of media is made to sign as a witness on the inventory of confiscated drugs or paraphernalia in a police operation while the repealed RA 6425 was silent on this aspect.

Section 21, paragraph 1 of RA 9165 states: “The apprehending team having initial custody and control of the drugs shall, immediately after seizure and confiscation, physically inventory and photograph the same in the presence of the accused or the person/s from whom such items were confiscated and/or seized, or his/her representative or counsel, a representative from the media and the Department of Justice (DOJ), and any elected public official who shall be required to sign the copies of the inventory and be given a copy thereof.”

Section 21, paragraph 1 of RA 9165 was further amended by RA 10640, and approved on July 15, 2014. But a member or representative of media as witness remains part of paragraph 1, which partly states: “… with an elected public official and a representative of the National Prosecution Service or the media who shall be required to sign the copies of the inventory and be given a copy thereof.”

Even if the phrase uses the disjunctive or, which could be understood as not compulsory, it still does not prevent the police from requiring a member of media, who happens to be covering the operation, to sign the inventory. It is awkward and unnecessary for a police beat reporter or photographer to be a witness in police operations, who could be later called to the witness stand to testify during trial of the accused in court.

It is on this feature of this law that the Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC), through executive director Pachico Seares, a lawyer, stood up to support the amendment of Section 21, paragraph 1 of RA 9165 proposed by the House Committee on Drugs to delete “media” as one of the witnesses.

In a press statement, Attorney Seares said “the CCPC has long stood for the removal of ‘media’ from the list in the law that requires witnesses to the inventory of illegal drugs confiscated in a police operation. The practice carries risk to the safety of journalists and being isolated, for those who shun signing inventories, from their police sources.”

In the proposed amendment, “members of the media may be invited to join/cover anti-drug operations of the government for journalism purposes only. Details and facts about the opertion should not be used as condition for the reporter to sign the inventory.”

The presence of a member of the media as a witness during a police operation does not, in the public eye, necessarily validate good police work, even if there are concerns about misconduct. In fact, this requirement creates an additional burden for journalists and potentially puts their lives at risk, as it pushes them outside the scope of their typical responsibilities.

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