One of the winners of the 2017 and the 60th World Press Photo contest – an annual showcase for the work of photojournalists worldwide – is the hysterically titled They Are Slaughtering Us Like Animals, a work by Daniel Berehulak of The New York Times. It took the first prize in the ‘General News/Stories’ category.
Just released last week, it pictures the rain-soaked lifeless body of a young man lying in a Manila street. Romeo Torres Fontanilla had been shot to death by two unidentified gunmen on motorbikes. It was taken in the early hours of the morning and shows police investigators at the scene sheltering under umbrellas.
It’s a good picture; stark and moody. But, as usual this isn’t simply the photograph of a crime victim – in the hands of the New York Times this is a piece of editorial used to perpetuate its agenda to undermine the government of President Rodrigo Duterte. For them it’s as good as evidence. The caption, after explaining the scene says this:
“President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines began his anti-drug campaign when he took office on 30 June 2016. Since then, more than 2,000 people have been slain at the hands of the police alone. Beyond those killed in official drug operations, the Philippine National Police have counted more than 3,500 unsolved homicides since 1 July. The victims, suspected users and pushers, are not afforded any semblance of due process”.
In other words, what someone viewing this photograph is led to infer is that the man lying dead in the street would not be lying dead in the street if it wasn’t for Duterte’s War on Drugs. That somehow Duterte was behind the killing of this man. No proof of that of course, but in the caption the implication is left to float there.
And that title – They Are Slaughtering Us Like Animals – whom are we supposed to believe “They” are? Having read much of what The New York Times and its likeness have written on this subject, we’re in no doubt. “They” are the shadowy death squads which are inspired or organised or instructed by the president in person to carry out extrajudicial killings. That’s their narrative.
But the fact is, long before Duterte made the journey from Davao City in the south of the country to the capital, the country’s crime rate – not least its violent-crime rate – was already out of control. In fact, in the first half of 2015 – almost six months before Duterte declared his candidacy for the May 2016 presidential election – crime levels in the Philippines had soared by 50% over the first half (1H) of the previous year. Manila’s streets were no strangers to dead bodies, back then.
At a glance, here are some of the 1H15 figures with those for 1H14 in brackets. Total index crimes, those against persons and property, 352,321 (256,592); murder, 7,245 (5,004); homicide, 6.607 (4,091); rape, 8,288 (5,069); physical injury cases, 182,886 (122,084); theft, 105,229 (86,451); car theft, 10,039 (5,599). And that’s just six months’ worth of crime and it certainly didn’t improve over the rest of the year. Also, as you can see, 2014 wasn’t exactly crime free either.
This scale, however, helps to put the oft-quoted 3,500 unsolved deaths attributed to the War on Drugs in perspective. They were also amassed over a period of about six months, but they pale by the side of the 13,852-strong murder-and-homicide orgy that was happening from January to June in 2015. Even 2014 murders/homicides – 10,698 of them – tower over the 3,500 unexplained deaths of those six months in 2016, coming in at 162% greater.
More to the point, these figures are the prime reason why the Filipino people wanted Duterte as their president. He’d successfully combated crime while serving as the mayor of Davao City – one of the most violent conurbations in the whole of Southeast Asia, let alone the Philippines – and they wanted that result for their own neighbourhoods. Today, Davao City is one of the safest cities in the region.
It would seem that The New York Times spent precious little time in the Philippines in 2015; if it did, then the terrifying murder, homicide and rape figures evidently didn’t, to its editors’ minds, amount to much of a story. The fact is, 2015 was an extremely violent year in the archipelago and the figures just seemed to grow unabated. There was no national effort – at least no archipelago-wide operation that we know of – that was formed to deal with the crime situation.
The media wrote about individual killings but nothing apparently prompted them to look at the national picture – and there again, the police and the administration at the time wouldn’t have been in any rush to broadcast any concern they may have had.
We’re not exactly sure what an acceptable murder rate is for a country like the Philippines, but we’d hazard a guess that no one in government at the time would have been prepared to say that close to 14,000 murders and homicides in six months was ‘within the target range’. And yet today, there are quite a few who were members of that government who find that the 3,500 killings racked up in Duterte’s first 200 and something days are nothing short of a national scandal.
The Secretary of the Interior during that period of 2015 was Mar Roxas, who went on to become the Liberal Party’s standard bearer in the 2016 elections in which he lost to Duterte by 6,269,636 votes. More pertinently, the Philippine National Police comes directly under the Department of the Interior and for the entire period of Roxas’s tenure – September 2012 to September 2015 – crime in the Philippines increased across the board.
No War on Criminality was conducted during the Roxas years – despite the rising crime numbers; despite the mounting mood within the country that something needed to be done. Such a war – like the one Duterte unleashed – was probably deemed politically unwise. Risky. Talking about crackdowns is one thing, actually instigating them is another.
The crime statistics are well documented and yet, ever since Mar Roxas’s Liberal Party lost power in 2016, it’s disingenuously used the War on Drugs (of which the War on Criminality is a part) to lambast the government on everything from human rights abuses, failure to provide due process and conditions in the country’s prisons and jails. And that brings us to another story and another photograph.
This one was also given an award at the 2017 World Press Photo contest. It features the Philippines too, and again references the government’s Crime War. With a factual title, this time – Life Inside The Philippines’ Most Overcrowded Jail – it showed a crush of prisoners sleeping in a stair well in Quezon City Jail which, as its caption rightly explains, is one of the country’s most overcrowded prisons. This picture, by Noel Celis of Agence France Press (AFP), took third prize in the contest’s ‘General News/Singles’ category.
The caption went on to explain: “Conditions are getting worse as police wage an unprecedented war on crime. There are 3,800 inmates at the jail, which was built six decades ago to house 800, and they engage in a relentless contest for space. Men take turns to sleep on the cracked cement floor of an open-air basketball court, the steps of staircases, underneath beds and hammocks made out of old blankets”.
All true. There was no editorialising by AFP with this picture’s caption. It was a shot that the agency sold around the world that illustrated the wretched state of the Philippines’ penal facilities. And that’s a story that really needs to be told.
Unfortunately, mainstream media didn’t use it for that purpose; they used this picture and others like it to illustrate the inhuman way in which criminals and detainees are kept in the prison system under President Duterte. The stories which they use the photo to illustrate are about a draconian government’s barbaric treatment of prisoners
But the inconvenient truth is that Philippine prisons have been overcrowded and under resourced for decades. And just like the crime wave which Duterte inherited, crumbing and inadequate prison infrastructure was also part of the legacy passed on to him.
Certainly, they’re more overcrowded now than there were, but that’s because thousands of methamphetamine sellers and their customers surrendered to the police in the early months of Duterte’s War on Drugs – a human tidal wave which no one saw coming. By September 2016, more than 700,000 had given themselves in and had to be housed in facilities that were already bursting at the seams.
In June 2015 – a full year before Duterte took office and launched his War on Drugs – Quezon City Jail, built to accommodate 800 prisoners, had a population of 3,100. In other words, just 700 less than when that AFP picture was taken. So it was hopelessly overcrowded then – and no doubt the stair wells at that time were also used as bunkhouses – but the media chose to ignore it. Or didn’t know about that; or forgot to ask, or most likely of all, didn’t care.
One reason might have been that, unlike Duterte, then-president of the Philippines, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, was evidently someone the media didn’t want to embarrass. After all, he was a pal of the West’s leader at the time, US president Barack Obama, whom the media dutifully fagged for continually.
Aquino had stuck it to the Chinese and taken Beijing to a European arbitration court over its occupation of a group of Philippine islets in the South China Sea. The vehemently anti-China Western media lauded Aquino for standing up to the Mainland. Unlikely then that they would want to take him to task over the state of his prisons and the living conditions of prisoners in those barred ghettos.
In fairness, the jails and the prisons didn’t suddenly fall into disrepair during the six years that Aquino occupied Malacañang, the presidential palace – they’d been decaying for decades. But it’s also fair to say that very little was done during his term to alleviate the situation. No new prisons were built and precious little effort was made to materially upgrade.
The country’s largest penitentiary, New Bilibid Prison (NBP, photo) at Muntinlupa City, Metro Manila, was actually new in 1940 – 77 years ago. Parts of its structure are dilapidated. And this is the country’s flagship penal facility.
In 2014 the Bureau of Corrections, the agency responsible for the country’s seven prisons and their populations, reported to the Philippine House of Representatives that NBP had a congestion rate of 164% and that the overall congestion rate for its seven prisons stood at 249%. Add to that the situations in the jails which are administered by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) and it’s clear that what Duterte inherited was not nothing approaching a workable prison infrastructure; it was more like a Black Hole of Calcutta on a national scale.
In 2015, the BJMP’s 461 jails had a staggering congestion rate of 398%. We’ll give that number a human dimension; in 2015, 93,961 prisoners were crammed into jail accommodation intended for 18,881. In Region IV, prisoner space in jails was oversubscribed by 720%, in Region III by 675%; Region IX by 565%, Region I by 549% … and so on. So Quezon City Jail’s congestion rate today of 375% is roughly mid range in terms of 2015 tallies.
This then is the reality behind that AFP photograph. The fact is it could have been taken in almost any jail in the Philippines during the couple of years prior to Duterte being sworn in as president.
And they say pictures don’t lie.