Why journalists should not be made witnesses in drug raids

February 25, 2020

I join many of my colleagues in welcoming a move to amend a provision under Republic Act 9165 or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002 which requires journalists who cover police anti-narcotics raids to appear in court for personal reasons.

I am a staunch anti-drugs advocate who survived  a bloody ambush in 1998 while writing a drug expose but as  a veteran Camp Crame reporter and columnist, I would say that being made as a witness in, say a raid on a secret shabu laboratory where drug lords and their employees are arrested, is really dangerous to one reporter’s life, work and health.

Since the days of the defunct Constabulary Narcotics Command, I have joined some of the biggest anti-drug operations launched by the famed Narcom which resulted in the seizure of tons of shabu, marijuana, heroin and cocaine and the killing or arrest of dozens of foreign and local drug traffickers.

However, the old R.A. 6425 or the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1972 did not require the presence of journalists as witnesses to the actual raids until the enactment of RA 9165 which literally changed the landscape when it comes to the coverage of anti-drug raids.

I’m citing my own experience in the early 2000 when I was asked by a Camp Crame-based police general-friend to join him in a raid on a major drug facility in Quezon City. After the raid was over, I was asked to be a witness to that operation.

A few weeks later, I received a summon asking me to appear in a Q.C. court to give a testimony on what happened that afternoon. Unknown to the police general, some of his men made me board a passenger jeep which they hired to transport some of the recovered drug evidence to the court.

Since I don’t want to be sitting beside shabu chemicals in that jeepney—being exposed to those chemicals is really bad to one’s health— I was forced to use my own vehicle to go to the Q.C. court that afternoon. After arriving at the court, we were made to wait for a couple of hours until the judge showed up and later asked me if I was really in that raid. A security guard who was also made as police witness was also there and obviously he did not go to work. After the presentation of evidence was over, I saw the guard all by himself and like me, is obviously set to spend his own money just to be a government witness while exposing his life to danger too.

I returned to Camp Crame around 5 in the afternoon of that same day fully exhausted, tired, feeling harassed and somehow frightened by the fact that I have come face-to-face with arrested drug lords. That would be the first and last time I would turn a police witness in an anti-narcotics raid.

Many friends from the police force have told me that they have been forced to avail of the services of some ‘witnesses-for-rent’ from pseudo press outfits as a result of the reluctance of real journalists to act as witnesses in anti-drug raids, some claiming it is against company policy.

A friend even whispered to me that this is the reason why they have the same witness in a number of RA 9165 cases, witnesses who were called in anytime of the day just to be present in anti-drug raids and sign papers that he actually saw the raid. The problem here is there are some enterprising officers who will go to the point of ‘bribing’ a favorable witness even though he is not present in the actual raid.

Thus, I would also like to welcome the move of Cagayan de Oro Representative Rufus Rodriguez to amend the RA 9165 provision that requires journalists to act as court witnesses. In reality, the work of a witness from the print and broadcast media will be affected by the need for them to attend court proceedings.    

In particular, Section 21 of RA 9165 which says that representatives from the media are among those required to sign the copies of the inventory of drugs and related items confiscated during an anti-drug operation, have compelled reporters to appear before the court, thus interrupting their work and most importantly, consuming precious time they need to gather news in their assigned beats.

I also join those calling for the Philippine National Police, the Philippines Drug Enforcement Agency and other law enforcement agencies to ‘limit the presence of media’ in their anti-narcotics operations to purely media coverage,  to inform the public of what they have done in fighting drugs.

A media organization had previously said that even if a media witness in the inventory and documentation of seized drugs during an anti-narcotics operations is not mandatory, they are still tapped as witnesses. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines event noted that “reporters are frequently pressured to become witnesses in order to have access to or report on anti-drug operations.”

In short, members of the media are literally being asked to testify against dangerous drug personalities who have the money and influence to order a hit job, even though they are already in jail. With this, a media man’s life is being put in peril.