The campaign against drugs and drug users promoted by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte since before his election has caused more than 2,000 deaths and elicited international backlash.
The violence has also raised suspicions that state security forces are involved and that innocent Filipinos have been targeted for reasons other than drugs.
In recent weeks, reports by international news outlets have cast doubt on both the reasoning undergirding Duterte’s anti-drug policies and the criteria under which Philippine police are enforcing them.
These reports have cited Philippine law-enforcement officials anonymously, and this in particular has drawn the ire of the country’s top police official.
“Tell our men and women, the officers who say this,” Philippine National Police chief Director General Ronald dela Rosa said on October 25, according to Philippine news site Rappler. “If they have balls, they should talk to me.”
Dela Rosa was responding to an October 18 Reuters report titled “As death toll rises, Duterte deploys dubious data in ‘war on drugs.'”
In its story, Reuters quoted a senior Philippine law-enforcement officer as calling the numbers about drug use that Duterte had cited “arbitrary,” and saying those numbers had put pressure on Philippine security forces and government officials.
Duterte said during his first state of the nationa address in July that the Philippines had 3.7 million drug addicts. But the Philippines’ main drug-research office found only 1.8 million drug users, one-third of whom had only consumed illegal drugs once in the past 13 months, Reuters reported.
According to the anonymous officer, Duterte’s statements had put pressure on police to apprehend a number of drug users in line with the elevated figure he cited. Top anti-drug officials also told Reuters that government policy relied on incomplete or misleading data about drug use.
“The problem is, every time the president says something, it’s already some sort of a policy statement,” the officer told Reuters on condition of anonymity. “We have to toe the line.”
A top Philippine drug-enforcement official waved away those concerns.
Duterte “just exaggerates it so we will know that the problem is very big,” Wilkins Villanueva, the Metro Manila regional director for the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, told Reuters. “The implication is that we have to work hard to solve the problem and we have to work hard so that . . . occasional drug users do not turn into regular drug users.”
Dela Rosa, the Philippine police chief, was more forceful.
“If they are dissatisfied with that’s happening, be open to the PNP chief,” he said during a press conference, according to Rappler. “If they don’t want to talk to their regional director, talk to me. But don’t go to the media to talk about those things.”
“That’s not just conduct unbecoming [of an officer]” he went on, “but it’s akin to insubordination.”
The PNP chief also singled out media outlets that have used anonymous sources to report on drug-related violence in the Philippines.
“That’s the problem with you,” he said. “You report on things but you don’t want to say who the source is. What if what you’re saying isn’t true and you just made that up?”
Official figures put the number of drug-related killings between when Duterte took office on June 30 and mid-October at nearly 2,300, 1,566 of whom were drug suspects killed by police.
That figure was down from earlier reports of 3,600 drug-related killings.
Those slayings come after the first half of the year saw just 68 drug suspects killed by Philippine security forces.
Dela Rosa’s comments are neither the first nor the most sinister comments a Philippine official has directed at the press. During an address at the end of May in his home city of Davao, Duterte himself said: “Most of you are clean, but do not ever say all journalists are clean … Just because you are a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination if you are a son of a bitch.”