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Should NYT tell us what to think?

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Sisyphus’ Lament

Should NYT tell us what to think?

Singapore—The Pulitzer for Breaking News Photography on our drug war is really a tribute to our photojournalists, particularly the Inquirer’s Raffy Lerma. Do we unconsciously value foreign views on Philippine issues more than our own?

Filipinos of all political leanings praised Australian Daniel Berehulak’s second Pulitzer last April 10. The New York Times (NYT) ran his photo essay, “They Are Slaughtering Us Like Animals,” on Dec. 7 in English, Filipino, Spanish and Mandarin.

It opens with a corpse in an alley lit by the yellow glow of street lights on a rainy night. Children surrounding a coffin follow, then bodies stacked in a morgue, then an overhead shot of inmates squeezed into a jail.

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His gripping work—and Time’s “In Manila, Death Comes by Night” and CNN’s “City of the Dead”—raised international awareness.

But Filipinos saw half a year of striking photos before Berehulak’s.

Lerma’s iconic “Pieta” photo-bannered the front page of the Inquirer’s July 24, 2016, issue. Jennilyn Olayres cradling her dead partner Michael Siaron unmistakably paralleled Michelangelo’s Virgin Mary cradling Jesus’ body.

“Pieta” went viral. No less than President Duterte criticized it in his first State of the Nation Address as overly “dramatic.”

On Aug. 3 Time wrote about Lerma and his photo. NYT ran a similar photo on its Aug. 2 front page. An NYT video producer later wrote: “this image… called me and other journalists to cover this urgent story.” So effectively framing a national issue transcends all awards.

RaffyLerma.com distinguishes itself with unmistakably Philippine cues: A poster of Jesus watching over the man shot beneath it. A chick atop a coffin. An ubiquitous alley cat staring at a tape-covered body.

NYT features cite Lerma. Its March 26 video “When a President Says, ‘I’ll Kill You’” opens with Lerma and his long hair, black glasses and cap. “I asked my boss to put me back on the night shift,” he began. The NYT film followed Lerma through crime scenes, then to a bar where the night shift cast off their emotional burden.

But why do Filipinos focus on the NYT and the Pulitzer?

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“What makes Berehulak stand out is the way he presented and edited,” opined award-winning photographer Rick Rocamora. “But our local photographers gave the story its first international exposure. It is unfortunate that we don’t give the same reaction unless foreign media makes it a major feature on their pages.”

Manila Times columnist Rigoberto Tiglao criticized the Inquirer for reprinting an NYT front-page story, “Strongman in the Philippines,” as its March 23 headline story.

I disagree, but he struck a chord when he questioned devoting the Inquirer front page to an American over its own Randy David, Solita Monsod and Opinion editor Rosario Garcellano, whom he named as top Filipino essayists.

Mr. Duterte’s critics float International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecution, yet fail to highlight Philippine lawyers’ initiatives.

CenterLaw, led by Inquirer columnist Joel Butuyan, filed the first Supreme Court case against the drug war last January. Crucially, they filed not murder charges, but a “writ of amparo,” a special procedure created by then Chief Justice Reynato Puno 10 years ago specifically for extrajudicial killings and disappearances.

The solicitor general declined to oppose—and brilliantly ended media interest.

Petitioner Efren Morillo is a vegetable vendor. He was shot by police while playing billiards in Payatas. He played dead and was later taken to a police station and made to wait for several hours despite a chest gunshot wound.

His story and legal strategy were ignored relative to South Korean Jee Ick-joo’s murder and the idea of ICC prosecution.

President Duterte is right to assert a more independent Philippine world view. Perhaps one day, he can award Lerma for documenting US police shootings of African-Americans, something he pointedly criticized, for an Asian audience.

For now, one hopes Filipinos more consciously embrace Philippine voices shaping Philippine issues. A free people cannot outsource its critical thinking to the NYT.

React: oscarfranklin.tan@yahoo.com.ph, Twitter @oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan.

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TAGS: extrajudicial killings, Inquirer Opinion, New York Times, Oscar Franklin Tan, Pulitzer Prize, Rodrigo Duterte, Sisyphus’ Lament, war on drugs
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