By Rigoberto D. Tiglao
IT was astonishing to hear Rappler Chief Executive officer Maria Ressa claim in her recent interview with BBC’s Stephen Sackur — which was disastrous for her credibility — that “27,000” Filipinos were killed in President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-illegal drugs campaign.
She said that figure was according to the Philippine Commission on Human Rights.
I had thought that figure had long been proven wrong and buried six feet under. In fact, saner anti-Duterte critics had stopped using that outrageously- exaggerated figure.
Indeed, “human rights violations” has receded as an issue for the Yellows to beat President Duterte with since they couldn’t prove that the number of casualties in the anti-drug war has been excessive.
But Ressa’s insistence is an indication of delusion, a syndrome of insisting on a particular thing even if she is presented with concrete evidence that she is totally wrong.
The Philippine National Police’s (PNP) figures — done by an independent unit within the organization — reports only 5,655 “persons who died during anti-drug operations” from July 1, 2016 to March 21, 2020.
How credible is this figure?
Ironically, it is confirmed to some extent even by an Ateneo-UP-La Salle outfit called Drug Archive funded in 2017 to 2018 by Columbia University’s Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism headed by Sheila Coronel. It boasted of being a “Data-Driven Examination of the Philippine Anti-Drug Campaign.”
Coronel actually has been Ressa’s echo chamber. She wrote in June 2017 in the journal Democracy that police had so far killed 9,000 in its anti-drug campaign. When I messaged her to ask where she got that 9,000 figure, she replied: “Numerous news reports quote that figure.” She provided the links to these “numerous news reports,” which led to articles that took off from Rappler’s first false report. One article was even on the police’s debunking of Rappler’s reports.
This kind of lazy and irresponsible reporting about her home country is from a Columbia University journalism school dean and former head of its investigative journalism unit.
What figure did Coronel’s outfit come up with, allegedly based on actual police blotters and media reports?
Just 5,021, for the period May 2016 to September 2017. The project was discontinued obviously since it couldn’t produce anything close to the “9,000” figure Coronel had claimed.
Another figure supporting the PNP’s count are the statistics based on National Statistics Office data sent to me by a reader Sally Velarde. It showed that the number of deaths in the Philippines even decreased by 0.5 percent from 582,000 in 2016 to 597,000 in 2017. If there were just half of the 27,000 drug-related killings, there would have been a sharp rise in deaths in the Philippines.
These nincompoops who claim that the police killed 27,000 in its drug war didn’t even think that, with such a figure, hospital morgues and funeral parlors would be so filled with corpses as their facilities (as is also true in most countries) remain constant or increase only slightly, based on the normal number of deaths in the Philippines. Indeed, this has been demonstrated in other countries where the Covid-19 deaths were large enough that it resulted in news images of mass graves, and even in New York City, of refrigerated vans to keep the corpses.
How was the 27,000 figure manufactured and still quoted in some international press?
That fabricated number was first broadcast to the international media by Liberal Party stalwart and Commission on Human Rights Chairman Jose Luis Gascon who was quoted in a Dec. 19, 2018 article in London’s The Guardian.
Titled “Duterte’s Philippines drug war death toll rises above 5,000,” the article was on a Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency’s report that 5,050 suspected criminals involved in illegal drugs were killed in gun battles with law enforcers from July 2016 to November 2018.
Buried down in the piece though, the article reported: “Chito Gascon, the chairman of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, said the toll could be as high as 27,000.”
Does Gascon have any proof for this estimate? Nothing. None at all.
From then on, since The Guardian is a respected newspaper, the Yellows and ignorant human-rights NGOs have been quoting that 27,000 figure.
The damage done to the Philippines’ image by that false number was demonstrated in the fact that even a moronic New York-based comedian peddled that lie in a popular stand-up comedy skit in 2019. He claimed in that skit: “According to the Commission on Human Rights, since Duterte took office in 2016, the death toll from extrajudicial killings is 27,000, which is horrific.” That means, the comedian claimed, that more people were killed in the Philippines in 2018 “than in Iraq, Somalia or the Democratic Republic of Congo.” He wasn’t being satirical, I can assure.
Gascon of course didn’t come up with that number from out of the blue. Propaganda lies are effective only if they have some basis, even flimsy ones. In Gascon’s fabrication, he used another fabrication — from Rappler. In an article totally disproven yet still posted and updated in this website, it claimed that from July 2016 to January 2017, casualties in the anti-drug war totaled 7,080.
That number was the result of a moronic misinterpretation, probably deliberately made, of official reports: it included other homicide cases which were not related to the anti-drug campaign.
Gascon though used that number to falsely extrapolate: if Rappler’s 7, 080 deaths from July 2016 to January 2017 means 1,011 killed monthly, then there were 27,297 killed for the 27 months from July 2016 to November 2018. “Let’s spread around the 27,000 so it can easily be remembered,” Gascon must have thought.
The dynamics of opinion-making in the United States is that its media swallow hook, line and sinker reports by people whom they consider as “one of their own,” and in their laziness (or because they cover so many other countries), they don’t bother to fact-check reports of “their people.”
After all, in their newsrooms, the Philippines is just one of the many countries they report on. That is if you’re a newspaper editor here, would you spend time and resources to check for instance if the New York Times’ reports on Venezuela are accurate?
(The author is a regular columnist of the Manila Times, a mainstream broadsheet national newspaper, on which the above column article first appeared last July 1, 2020. He writes thrice weekly for Manila Times since January 2013. Before Manila Times, Mr. Tiglao also had editorial stints with the Philippine Daily Inquirer, as Manila Bureau Chief and Correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review (1989 to 2000), a prestigious international business magazine on Asia, owned by Dow Jones; as Business editor and columnist of the Manila Chronicle, 1986 to 1989, and reporter for Business Day, 1981 to 1986. Tiglao also served Philippine Ambassador to Greece and Cyprus (May 2006-October 20100; Head, Presidential Management Staff (August 2004-April 2006); Presidential Chief of Staff (December 2002-July 2004), Presidential Spokesman with Cabinet Rank (April 2001-November 2002), and Press Secretary (April 2002-November 2002) under then-president GMA.)