• Reading time:8 mins read

Fakest ‘fake news’ was viral Inquirer photo

IT turns out that the fakest “fake news” ever reported in recent memory is a photo.

This is the front-page photo in the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s July 24, 2016 issue showing pedicab driver Michael Siaron’s lifeless body being cradled in a Pieta-like pose by his partner. Siaron, the newspaper claimed,* was executed by the police in the course of President Duterte’s war against illegal drugs. The photo went viral on the internet, with Western newspapers publishing it on their own front pages.

Its impact was such on the public mind that to paraphrase that newspaper adage, a single fake photo is worth a thousand black propaganda articles. If Duterte didn’t have the massive political support he had at the time and today, I think that single photo would have created such an outrage against his presidency.

The Inquirer actually tag-teamed with the news website Rappler in this conspiracy to stop the war vs illegal drugs. The website manufactured in September that fake data that at the end of that month, the police had “extra-judicially” killed 7,080 illegal-drug industry suspects, a figure that has been totally debunked.

It turns out now, after more than a year of police investigation, that the pedicab driver was killed by a drug syndicate’s assassin, one Nesty Santiago, who was also responsible for five other killings. The unique scratches – like fingerprints – on the bullets that murdered Siaron matched with the gun used by the killer, recovered when he was killed in December.

Did the police invent this explanation? I don’t think so, or it could have fabricated that story at the height of that “Pieta” photo’s virality. Why would it come up with such an explanation, when the Yellows had clearly failed, going by the polls, in their campaign to portray the country as having been turned into a killing field because of Duterte’s war against illegal drugs?

It is an understatement to say that the PDI had gone to town last year with that photo and sensationalized it to the hilt in its efforts to portray Duterte’s campaign as resulting in ruthless, “extra-judicial” killings.

Heart-rending photo
I can’t remember any such heart-rending, dramatic photo hogging half a newspaper’s front-page. The layout was intended to be a screaming poster, with a headline under it in the biggest font permissible in a newspaper: “Church: Thou shall not kill.”

That front page was the work of a master propagandist intent to bring Duterte down, calculating – mistakenly – that he or she could use Filipinos’ Catholicism to create outrage against the President.

The ‘viral’ award-winning photo, handled by a virtuoso in propaganda, who transformed it into fake news.

A young man killed in Duterte’s war was in a picture echoing Michaelangelo’s Pieta (“pity” in Italian), which is one of the most iconic depictions of the Virgin Mary: the Mother cradling the dead body of her son Jesus Christ.

If still you didn’t get the message that it is God himself in his mysterious ways who is asking you to be outraged at Duterte’s war vs drugs, the PDI put a huge headline under the photo: “Thou shall not kill”. The headline really had nothing to do with the photo, and didn’t, by any journalistic standards, deserve to be a headline, as it was merely the title of a message of the Archbishop of Manila on the occasion of Duterte’s scheduled first SONA. No matter, it emphasized what the PDI editors wanted to convey.

(In another demonstration of its usual editorial policy, the PDI buried this recent story on who really killed Siaron in its inside pages—I couldn’t even find it in its internet version—when its report last year that he was killed by the police was on its front page with the huge photo, followed up another article in which the photographer Raffy Lerma boasted about his viral photo. For that photo, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, funded by the American National Endowment for Democracy, conferred on Lerma an “Award of Distinction.”)

Not even in their wildest dreams perhaps did the drug lords think that they could have such a PDI photo help them enormously in their project to stop through public opinion Duterte’s war against them. A crudely written placard had been left beside the tricycle driver’s corpse that read: “Pusher ako, huwag tularan (I’m a pusher, don’t become like me).” It was obviously intended to pin the blame on the police or on vigilantes supporting the police.

I had always suspected that there may be such a scheme as in the past every time some local official—often the Manila and Pasay mayors—launched an anti-illegal drugs campaign, there would be such killings, with that kind of placard left beside the corpses. The mayors often would quietly end their campaign, almost always after such photos of an alleged summary execution by police would appear in the newspapers, as they were blamed for the killings by human rights NGOs and even by the clergy.

One would be naïve, though, or an unthinking supporter of Duterte, to insist that there have been no summary executions of illegal-drug suspects by the police.

As I have written in several columns before, summary executions by the police have been going on perhaps since the birth of our modern Republic. This is so because the police are exasperated by the capability of criminals, especially those backed by rich and powerful drug lords, to escape justice because of our slow and often inutile court system. Many policemen even fear that criminals they have arrested, after they are freed on bail, will get back at them, even kill their families.

It isn’t a situation of course in which a policeman decides for himself who to kill or not. There has been an unwritten rule that the ones killed are those known to be incorrigible drug pushers, brutal killers, and rapists. In most cases, it is the chief of police of a city or town, and then the precinct commanders, who would implicitly send the message to what extent he is willing to tolerate summary executions of known criminals. In police precincts in the most crime-infested areas of the city, it has even been a practice for a rookie policeman to be “initiated” and made an accepted member of the police brotherhood by requiring him to kill a known “incorrigible” criminal.

Horrible? Of course. All of us wish we had a perfect world, a smoothly functioning justice system. But there just isn’t, and Duterte knows this when he launched his war against illegal drugs, which he thinks would save the country millions of lives in this and coming generations.

The role of the President though would be to exhort the police, of which he is ultimately the commander in chief to follow the rule of law, yet at the same time rally them to execute the war vs illegal drugs. As the Filipino term that is difficult to translate would put it: “Bahala na sila to balance the two orders.”

*To be accurate, the PDI in the article that accompanied the photo did not blame the police, reporting only that the pedicab driver was killed by “two men riding on a motorcycle.” It was the photographer Lerma who would write four days later, referring to the victim: “It was the third extra-judicial killing of suspected drug pushers that I covered on the graveyard shift last week.” Extra-judicial killing is defined as executions by the police or other state agents of suspected criminals without the sanction of a court.