“Once upon a time there were six little children living in a cinder-block house,” said Patricia Evangelista at the 9th annual Women in the World Summit in New York on Friday. “One morning, Christine, who was 12, woke up to see Papa at the stove making spaghetti.” He sang to Christine and her siblings and told them to take care of each other because he had to go away for a while. Suddenly there was shouting outside, and the barrels of three guns poked through the windows. “The police kicked the door open and they shoved Papa on the couch, head down, a hand on the back of his neck.” The children, crying, were forced out of the house — except Christine, who resisted and tried to hug her father. She was still standing there when they shot him in the head twice. The shots were fired at such close range that the next morning her little brother pulled a bullet out of the couch.
“It was many months before Christine started talking again,” said Evangelista, a multimedia journalist for Rappler, an online news source based in the Philippines. When Christine did finally speak, it was to blame herself: “Had she hugged him harder, her father would still be alive.”
This story was not a fairy tale, despite the ironic framing. It was the very real result of policies developed by Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Republic of the Philippines, who has been nicknamed “the Punisher” for his unforgiving approach to law enforcement.
From the start of his political career, as mayor of Davao City in the south of the Philippines, Duterte’s penchant for violence was evident, said Evangelista, whose reporting on Duterte’s “drug war” won a Human Rights Press Award in 2017. “I suppose it would be easy to describe him when he was campaigning as something of a ‘man’s man,’ “ she said. “He liked motorcycles, he liked guns, he liked what he called the ‘weaker sex,’ particularly the pretty ones.” He said things that politicians had never said before — that he was a killer, that he would kill 100,000 criminals if elected to higher office, that the fish in Manila Bay would grow fat on the corpses of criminals. “People thought he was bold and brave and exactly what they needed.”
Since Duterte assumed the presidency on June 30, 2016, thousands of people have been brutally killed. Human Rights Watch estimates the tally at 12,000 victims, though a Filipino senator recently put it at “more than 20,000,” and Evangelista told the audience in New York something similar. “Officially, there are 4,075 killed by the police,” she explained. “The narrative is that each one of these drug suspects fought back” — that is, they were killed by police in self-defense. “But these are not all police killings. In the beginning we called them vigilante killings, sometimes extrajudicial killings. The police call them ‘deaths under investigation.’ There are maybe 16,000 deaths under investigation.”
One chilling incident involved a victim with a smiley face drawn over his face with a marker, Evangelista said. “Manila is where murder has become a meme.”
These figures and reports are shocking enough that Duterte’s drug war is currently subject to an investigation by the International Criminal Court, which is examining alleged crimes against humanity in the Philippines. Duterte has rejected the charge and announced that the Philippines plans to withdraw from the treaty that grants authority to the ICC.
Confronted with the charge of crimes against humanity, Evangelista said, Duterte responded dismissively: “Frankly, are they human?”
Evangelista contests the idea that there is a chronic drug problem in the Philippines at all—the very basis for Duterte’s offensive. The percentage of drug users in the Philippines is roughly half the global average, she says. But Duterte’s policies do not differentiate between casual users and major dealers: a person who smokes marijuana once a year is targeted the same way as someone openly selling drugs. “The president says kill them all.”
Unsurprisingly, the carnage has a class dimension. “The drug war does not extend to where I live,” Evangelista said. The people who are dying are in shanty towns — not “where privilege is.” Violence is disproportionately directed towards the poor.
It is also directed at women, whom Duterte has a history of targeting with misogynistic hate speech. During his campaign, Evangelista said, he gave a speech about a 1989 riot at a prison in Davao City. When the riot was over, he noticed a young female missionary who had been raped and killed. “He said he looked down at the body and thought she was beautiful—she looked like a beautiful American. And he said he was angry. Maybe he was angry at the rape, but mostly he was angry because he got there too late.” As mayor, he believed, he should have been allowed to rape her first. (Recently, Duerte directed his soldiers to shoot female rebels “in the vagina.”)
Evangelista works the night beat, which places her in considerable danger as a reporter. Duterte has shown himself to be very sensitive to public criticism, accusing the media of being “fake news,” foreign owned, controlled by “our imperialist lords” — meaning Americans. Accused of cyber libel, Rappler has had its license suspended and its reporters barred from covering the president. “We are not foreign owned, we do not evade taxes, and we are not fake news,” Evangelista said, to whistles and applause.
“I don’t think I’m the resistance, or journalists are. We’re there to tell the story,” she said, before going on to add, “But I believe in journalism. And I believe that if we tell the stories, at least we acknowledge that these are people.” The man who was shot in the back of the head? “He was was a father,” Evangelista said. “He may have been a user — he may not have been — but he was human.”
Watch highlights and full video of the entire interview at the top of this story.
Additional reporting by Yasmeen Qureshi.
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