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Carlos Conde

Torture: Just a story

June 26, 2008 8:05pm
Five years ago, I wrote a story about a Muslim teenager who was imprisoned in General Santos City for allegedly being a terrorist. The boy showed signs – bruises, mainly – that he was tortured by whoever captured him.

Today, I can't even recall the name of the teenager. I do remember this, however: I never bothered to check back to see what had happened to him.

He was, after all, just a story.

Across newsrooms in the Philippines, most journalists probably have the same mindset about their subjects. Just a story. Early on, we were taught by our superiors in the business that we should just report, that we do not advocate anything. Don't get too close with the subject or it will compromise your objectivity.

Unfortunately, it would seem that, in the Philippines, reporting on human rights and torture can be easily equated with advocacy. Which is to say that, often, journalists who dare to write about human rights in ways different from what the mainstream press often does – that is, failure to provide context, among others – are easily pigeonholed as leftists or leftist sympathizers. We've heard of tales by our colleagues being ostracized in their beats and being ignored by their sources for their reportage on human rights. Sad but true.

This is probably the reason why most stories on torture are published mainly by the alternative press, mainly the online publications like Bulatlat, Davao Today, MindaNews and other such online publications, many of them based in the regions. Go to those websites and you will find that they are chockful of stories on human-rights abuses.

What these media outlets have in common is that reporting on human rights is part of their advocacy. Perhaps more importantly, they don't operate in the same environment as the mainstream press.

In any case, there seems to be an agreement that there is a dearth of stories on torture in the Philippine press. (Although, to be fair, the Philippine press has done a remarkable job lately in bringing to the world's attention the terrible human rights violations in our country.)

I have said it before and I say it again: the Philippine media's beat system, which has created an over-reliance on the military and police – the same guys that commit most of the torturing -- prevents journalists from reporting human rights and torture much more deeply and much more aggressively.

A torture story can be a very specific story. It necessitates that a reporter identifies who did what to whom. And because most torture cases are perpetrated by the police or military, a reporter on these beats who should be familiar with the story would be hard put to write about it. She can but she risks backlash, which can come in the form of being ostracized by her press corps, being thrown out of the loop, and being denied access to sources and information.

In other words, human rights and torture are subjects that can emasculate the journalist.

Often, the consequence is to either "under-report" the torture story or simply ignore it and move on to the next story.

To be sure, many journalists in the police and military beats have done their jobs in reporting torture, but they've paid the price. I know of one case where a general actually called up a reporter who had written about an abuse committed by his soldiers and subjected the reporter to a dressing down. The reporter was called a leftist and was told never to set foot on the military camp ever again.

Still, torture is often reported in the Philippine press but not in the way human rights activists want it to be reported. We see crime suspects being paraded before the media, their faces bruised, obviously bearing the signs of torture but hardly anybody asks what happened. We also see the police openly allowing suspects to be beaten up.

I suspect that many journalists now tend to regard torture as SOP, much like in the police and the military. Apparently, the Filipino people view torture the same way.

In a BBC survey in 2006 on people's views on torturing prisoners, the Philippines -- like most of the respondents in the 24 other countries in which the poll was taken -- scored high (56 percent) when asked if they were "against all torture." But on the proposition that torture is permissible to "some degree," we were in the top four, tying at 40 percent with Indonesia and a little lower than Iraq (42 percent) and
Israel (43 percent).

This tendency to use torture -- and its acceptance by the public -- to coerce confession and identify suspects (often wrongly) can be traced back to the long history of human-rights abuses by law enforcers in the Philippines.

The press is the one entity that can shake the public out of this ignorance or state of denial. Sadly, it hasn't done much to do that, for a variety of reasons. Among us journalists, there remains the mindset that stories on human rights and torture belong in the fringes, often to be ignored.

Indeed, the last time I wrote something about torture was five years ago, about that Muslim teenager.

I've just been too busy with other things. There were more important stories to write about.

This, I think, is the greatest barrier.

(Carlos Conde is a journalist based in Manila. This is a slightly edited version of a paper the author delivered at a forum on torture last June 25, organized by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines and the nongovernment group Balay, among others.)
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