2022 Shortlist

Duterte government’s ‘rubbish’ files stall SC drug war case

Country/area: Philippines

Organisation: Rappler

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 24/02/2021

Credit: Lian Buan, Rambo Talabong, Jodesz Gavilan, Michelle Abad, and Pauline Macaraeg


Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. 

Rambo Talabong covers the House of Representatives and the local government sector for Rappler. Prior to this, he covered security and crime. He was named Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. In 2021, he was selected as a journalism fellow by the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and impunity, and also hosts the weekly podcast Newsbreak: Beyond the Stories. 

Michelle Abad is a researcher-writer at Rappler. Possessing the heart and soul of a feminist, she is working on specializing in women’s issues in Newsbreak, Rappler’s investigative arm.

Pauline Macaraeg is a digital forensics researcher at Rappler. Her work involves studying the digital landscape and finding ways to counter online efforts that undermine democratic institutions and values. She writes about the spread and impact of disinformation and harmful online content.

Project description:

The series is an unprecedented look into the police’s files on drug war operations, including reports of deaths, and which took two years of litigation before the Supreme Court was able to compel them to submit. Rappler obtained a copy of those files and pleadings, revealing the documents were no better than rubbish reports whose only value was to delay a court decision on whether President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war should be voided. The case is pending. A subset of the files revealed that killings were already endemic in a province outside Manila with little to no solution.

Impact reached:

Four months after Rappler published the series, the former prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) requested an investigation into Duterte’s drug war and other extrajudicial killings. Providing context to the series was five years’ worth of Rappler’s reporting into the drug war, parts of which were cited 49 times in the ICC prosecutor’s request for authorization to probe Duterte 

Techniques/technologies used:

The team used both Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets to serve as repositories of the data we collected from the drug war documents. We analyzed the data using the same set of tools available within these softwares. The team plotted the data using Flourish, in addition to using Google Maps, to give us the big picture of what we are working with. 

What was the hardest part of this project?

Getting the files was our first big hurdle, as providing us copies of the documents would get sources charged with contempt of court. We obtained the copy in 2020 just before the pandemic hit, meaning we had to sort through thousands of unorganized files as we navigated the challenges of reporting in the time of COVID-19. Transferring confidential and big files in the time of the pandemic was also difficult. Ultimately, it was the uselessness of data in the files that proved the most difficult to deal with – how do we find the story in the data after we found out there was scarce data after all? Parts 1 and 2 tell the story of what lack of data meant, while Part 3 was a result of finding the trend in a small subset. 

What can others learn from this project?

Rappler’s reporting demonstrates what a local newsroom under attack can achieve with collaboration among its journalists for a long-term investigative data project. The combined expertise of the reporters involved in the story provides an intimate yet system-spanning look at the failure of criminal investigation and judicial action in President Rodrigo Duterte’s blood-soiled central platform, the war on drugs. The project also signals the urgent need for technology in telling impactful stories, all while keeping the fundamental principles of journalism intact – the necessity of data journalism.

Project links: