February 03, 2017 at 12:01 am
I have a friend who works as a “fixer.” And in journalism lingo, such a person is not someone who helps you get the documents and small-time approvals you need from some front-line government office.
In the writing trade, a fixer is a local hired by a foreign journalist in order to understand the lay of the land and to navigate it. The fixer makes appointments for interviews for visiting journalists (known derisively to local deadline-beaters as “parachutists,” because they arrive here suddenly and just as abruptly transform themselves into experts on the Philippines), guides them to places of interest and helps set them up with everything from camera crews and transportation to interpreters and watering holes.
The campaign against illegal drugs started last year by the Duterte administration has been a boon to fixers like my friend. The parachutists have been arriving in droves from almost all Western media outlets that can still afford to send foreign correspondents to other countries for months now, and all of them want to do the same story: How President Rodrigo Duterte supposedly became a cross between Idi Amin and Dirty Harry, piling up bodies on the streets of Manila of anyone who remotely resembles a drug suspect as fast as they can be killed, man woman, or child.
But my friend, who also used to be a local reporter, told me that nearly all of the foreign journalists he has worked with recently have come here with “pre-written” stories in their heads. “They only seem interested in filling in the blanks in their reports with the names of actual persons, actual places and the appropriate dates and times,” he said.
In one case, he said, he was working with a European journalist who simply could not get the pre-planned story he wanted: that the Philippine police were killing anyone for the flimsiest of reasons and that the citizenry was up in arms over the cold-blooded executions. In interview after interview, in crime scene visit after crime scene visit, the journalist was not getting his story.
“I told him, maybe that’s the story you should write, because that’s the data you’ve gathered,” my fixer-friend told the foreigner. “At least it will be different from everything that your colleagues who’ve come over have written.”
The foreigner looked at my friend like he’d just encountered a crazy person—or at least someone who actually had the temerity to tell him, a big-shot reporter from a Western country, what to write. After a few more days of humiliating futility, the parachutist left the Philippines.
My friend the fixer said he saw what the visiting journalist wrote when he got back home. It was full of dramatic atmosphere and convincing boots-on-the-ground reportage—except that none of it, save for the fact that the reporter had actually come over, really happened.
My friend could only shake his head at the recollection. But he can’t really reveal the journalistic fakery that took place without risking his own lucrative livelihood as one of the best fixers in town.
And he needs more work because the flood of parachutists has gone down to a trickle. “The drug war in the Philippines has been covered to death, apparently, and everyone now wants to cover Donald Trump,” he explained.
Good luck with that, I told my friend. Like Trump cares about one more story—or a million more—in the press that takes a dim view of his presidency.
* * *
Amnesty International, the United Kingdom-based human rights organization, has condemned the bloody war against illegal drugs started by President Rodrigo Duterte upon his election last year. The real news, of course, would be if it didn’t.
But in its scathing assessment of Duterte’s drug campaign, AI came up with the totally new angle that the police were paying hitmen to kill drug suspects from P5,000 to P15,000 per “kill.” This is certainly news to Filipinos who would readily believe that corrupt policemen make money out of the campaign against drugs—but not actually shell out money of their own in order to help implement Duterte’s drive.
Indeed, while the policemen allegedly involved in the kidnapping, killing and disposal of the body of retired Korean executive Jee Ick Joo were said to have repurposed Duterte’s campaign using the old “hulidap” template, there is scant evidence to point to the subcontracting by the cops of the killing of drug suspects. Yet this is the conclusion that AI arrived at, based on its interviews with anonymous actors in the anti-drug war, including, AI said, actual (if also unnamed) policemen.
According to the organization, it conducted more than a hundred interviews over three months in three selected areas before it came up with its damning report. But AI did not name any single person whose claims about the paying off of killers could be verified.
Senator Panfilo Lacson, reacting to the AI report, says he intends to write the rights group to ask it to help the Senate investigate its published claims. “If they can prove that this is happening, it will be a big help; if not, they will have to answer for making false, unverified claims,” Lacson told me.
Fair enough. Let’s hope AI gives more details about its new, headline-grabbing reports in the coming days.