The Philippine National Police can thank its lucky stars that on the day Davao journalist Margarita Valle and her counsel announced through a press con that they were filing charges against the policemen who arrested her allegedly by mistake on June 9 and held her incommunicado for the next 12 hours, more sensational news would bump the latest case of police wrongdoing off the top of the national conversation.
That news, of course, was Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s extraordinary statement “condemning in the strongest terms” the actions of a Chinese vessel that abandoned 22 Filipino fishermen on the high seas after the Chinese boat supposedly figured in a collision with the fishermen’s vessel, eventually sinking it, off Recto Bank. The electrifying report dominated the rest of the day’s news, as the public waited for the appropriately outraged response from the President (none came).
But if the account of the latest act of Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea stoked popular anger—especially because it came on the country’s 121st Independence Day celebrations, thus highlighting how Philippine sovereignty is seemingly once again under threat—Valle’s narrative of her ordeal under police detention arguably merits equal concern from the public, because it touches on something as critical and fundamental to ordinary people’s lives: respect for their human rights.
Valle, 61, was arrested at the Laguindingan Airport in Misamis Oriental by agents of the PNP’s Criminal Intelligence and Detection Group (CIDG). Their basis for the arrest was an almost decade-old warrant. According to Valle, she was not even allowed to read the document. The mother of four had just come from a training workshop with the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines in Cagayan de Oro City and was waiting for her flight home to Davao City.
Despite her protestations, and without access to a lawyer, Valle was brought to the CIDG office in Pagadian City, Zamboanga del Sur, some 200 kilometers away, where they took her mug shot and fingerprints. She was detained for 12 hours, prevented from reaching out to anyone, and was released only after her media colleagues, the religious community she works with, and the Commission on Human Rights raised an uproar.
The police eventually explained that they had mistaken Valle for one Elsa Renton, whose alias was supposedly similar to her name. Renton is a suspected member of the communist movement and has outstanding warrants for arson and multiple murder, the CIDG added.
What a mistake. Surely the police would apologize? Malacañang itself suggested so: “Kung mistaken identity (if it’s mistaken identity), the police would owe that journalist an apology,” said presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo. CIDG Region 9 chief Police Col. Tom Tuzon got the hint, and tried to make amends by saying they sought Valle’s “understanding” for the “unnecessary anxiety” they had caused her, and vowing to investigate the mix-up to avoid it happening again.
At least the underlings are honorable enough to own up to their mistake. Not PNP chief Police Gen. Oscar Albayalde, who made no apology to Valle and downplayed the foul-up by saying, “it happens, but very rarely… kung minsan nagkakamali yung nagtuturo especially the complainant (sometimes the complainant gets it wrong).” Such blunders occur because the police lack the technical capacity to vet tips given to them by informants, he said.
The PNP’s total budget for 2019, it should be pointed out, is P173.24 billion, of which P152.31 billion is said to be designated for crime prevention, which presumably includes intelligence operations.
How difficult was it for the police, in any case, to verify Valle’s identity? As the National Union of Journalists (NUJP) pointed out, Valle has been a community reporter for nearly four decades and is also known for her work with nongovernment organizations focusing on peace, development and the environment—information that can be found online. But Valle said the agents holding her refused her plea for them to call her media colleagues or Google her name to countercheck her identity.
Which raises the question: Was it indeed a case of “mistaken identity,” or, as the NUJP has charged, “a criminal abduction of a journalist”—perhaps, “considering the current climate of impunity,” an act of intimidation that was foiled only by the vigilance of concerned citizens?
Whatever it is, being hauled off to police detention, denied legal counsel and held incommunicado for 12 hours is an ordeal no citizen should undergo. The Bill of Rights guarantees that. But Albayalde says “it happens.” All of us are hereby warned.
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