Publishing ‘narco list’ may breach journalism ethics, due process, media groups warn

President Rodrigo Duterte announced a P5 million bounty for every “ninja cop” killed, referring to police personnel involved in corrupt practices and illegal drugs, during his speech at the Hugpong ng Pagbabago (HNP) Convention at the SMX Convention Center in Davao City on August 17, 2018. RENE LUMAWAG/Presidential Photo

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/7 March) – Publishing and broadcasting the names of public officials allegedly involved in the illegal-drugs trade may amount to breach of professional ethics and impinge on the principles of due process and rule of law, seven media groups across the country said in a joint statement Thursday.

The statement noted that the list, prepared by Malacanang, reportedly enrolls the names of 82 candidates in the May 2019 elections, and is based on still to be verified intelligence reports and wiretapped information received from foreign governments.

“President Duterte and his spokesperson Salvador Panelo have announced plans to release the list to the public next week, even before the National Bureau of Investigation could validate its contents, or even before the authorities could build cases and file the appropriate charges against the alleged malefactors. The chief of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency said he is against the release of the list, adding that his agency has yet to re-validate it. The Commission on Elections’ spokesperson said the government must ‘convict first’ before those on the list could be disqualified as candidates,” the statement said.

It emphasized that “this matter is more than just about a list, and its disclosure, more than just a story that the Duterte Administration seems to want the news media to publish and broadcast with no thought to the journalistic values of fairness, accuracy, and independence.”

“Instead of rushing to print or air, we now urge all our colleagues to exercise utter prudence and fastidious judgment in evaluating this ‘story’.

“To be sure, the ‘story’ offers just a list of names, but not the full, substantive details of why or how those on the list had been tagged or plugged as so-called ‘narco politicians’,” it added.

The statement said naming and shaming those seeking public office allegedly involved in the illegal drugs trade without convincing proof or filing cases “redounds to mere trial by publicity of political rivals, and a publicity stunt for the public and the news media’s transient amusement.”

“Such naming and shaming calls attention to the possible invasion of privacy, as well as denial of due process and presumption of innocence, for those on the list.

“Once published or broadcast, the travesty will be magnified as a collective disregard for the rule of law, and a clear breach of the time-honored traditions of fair, accurate, and independent journalism, by the news media,” it said.

It said that if indeed it had proof and evidence on hand, the Duterte Administration should pursue legal actions rather than seek publicity for its unverified “narco list” story.

No exemptions

The statement, refuting Panelo’s assertion, pointed out that the Constitution, in Article III, Section 14 (1-2), upholds the principle of presumption of innocence and provides for no exemptions.

“In what seems to be his own apparent doubts about the list’s veracity, Mr. Panelo has said that those on the list could always sue for libel, if it could be proved that they had been falsely tagged or accused.

“But that also means that the aggrieved parties would have to file suit against news-media agencies that would publish or broadcast the names on the unverified list. The likely respondents, though, will not include the President, because he enjoys immunity from suit while in office,” it said.

The statement urged news media to verify independently “before running a list that tags and links people to hateful crimes, on the mere say-so of the President and his political lieutenants.”

It said uncritical reporting could endanger the life and liberty of persons apart from putting the ethics and credibility of the journalism profession in serious doubt.

“It is from the courts — by due process, by evidence, by fair trial – that the people must know who are guilty, and who are innocent. It is not the Duterte Administration that, by press release alone, must name and shame possibly both the guilty and the innocent via an unverified “narco list.

“We, journalists and media organizations can, at the very least, refuse to play along when the government and those who are supposed to lead the nation play fast and loose with due process and the rule of law,” it concluded.

‘Validated’ list

On Aug. 7, 2016 at a wake in a military camp in Davao City, the President had read names from what he called a “validated” list of 163 barangay chairs, municipal mayors, other public officials as well as police officers and soldiers allegedly linked to the illegal drugs trade.

He warned those on the list would be hunted down if they did not report to their superiors within 24 hours. It turned out that many of those on the list had long been dead, or wrongly named. Many others had been killed after the partial release of the list.

“By December 2016, in a series of TV interviews, however, the President said his list of 163 had grown to 6,000 names. Two years hence, the President said his list enrolls the names of 82 politicians running in the May 2019 elections,” the statement said.

The statement was signed by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, Philippine Press Institute, Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, MindaNews, Center for Community Journalism and Development, and Freedom for Media, Freedom for All Network. (MindaNews)