What it’s like to cover Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal drug war.
In international journalism, a local journalist hired by foreign reporters for his or her special knowledge of the local area, culture, and language is called a fixer. This series explores the untold stories behind their largely unrecognized work. You can read about fixing in China here, Mexico here, Belarus here, and Afghanistan here.
Every night around 10 p.m., dozens of local Filipino and foreign journalists gather at the Manila Police District Headquarters in the Philippines’ capital city, waiting for word of the latest killing.
The graveyard shift has taken on a whole new meaning in the Philippines since President Rodrigo Duterte launched a brutal crackdown on illegal drugs last June. More than 7,000 suspected drug users and dealers have been killed, mostly execution style by vigilante gunmen with alleged links to the police.
Rica Concepcion, a veteran Filipino journalist and fixer, was one of the first reporters on the scene. After more than 20 years working throughout Asia as a freelance documentary producer for various international news networks, she transitioned into fixing full-time in 2012. In the last year, she’s worked with numerous print and television outlets, including Reuters, Time, and HBO’s Vice.
Roads & Kingdoms spoke with Concepcion about covering the daily killings, President Duterte’s rocky relationship with the press, and how she reacted when the New York Times asked her to work with one of their Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers.
Roads & Kingdoms: What was it like when you first started covering the drug war graveyard shift?
Rica Concepcion: The feeling at first was that God’s sleeping, or that there is no God. That’s how crazy some of those moments were. Normally after a shoot, you say let’s go have a drink. But after the nights ended, all the journalists were just staring with this heavy breathing, feeling so frustrated, feeling the pain and getting so confused. It’s a different kind of emotion. And you know that every day and every night it’s going to be like this. It’s not once a week. It’s every day.
R&K: Last December, the New York Times published a bombshell exposé of the war on drugs. Can you describe your experience working with Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Daniel Berehulak on that piece?
Concepcion: At first, I didn’t want to accept the work. In fact, I didn’t even want to answer the phone. My daughter said, “Mama, there’s a foreign number trying to call you.” I said, “No, I’m finished with the war on drugs.” I was already having a problem with the local journalists. They didn’t like the idea of me bringing foreign journalists around. Some would say, “because of the foreigners, we’re losing access with the police.” Sometimes when I arrived, they would say, “Oh, Ms. International is here.” I didn’t want that anymore.
But when I opened my email [after the Times tried calling], everyone was like “please Rica, answer your phone!” On Facebook, all these photographers were messaging me, including Christopher Morris of Time magazine. He said, “Rica, I think you need to take the call. It’s the New York Times.”
R&K: What happened when you took the call?
Concepcion: After I accepted, [the editor] said the photographer will call you in a short while. He called in a minute! He said, “Hey Rica. I’m boarding a plane. I’ll be there at 4 a.m.” I couldn’t believe it. It was 6 p.m. and I still needed to get a haircut and have my massage. He told me, “Let’s meet at 6 a.m. in my hotel and have breakfast.” I said, “Fuck.”
R&K: How did it go when you first met Berehulak?
Concepcion: I didn’t know him. When we first sat outside the office [at the police station], the other photographers started coming in and they couldn’t believe Daniel Berehulak was with me. I’m like, ‘who is this guy?’ But we hit it off well.
R&K: President Duterte has boycotted the media by refusing to hold press conferences, referred to reporters as “lowlifes,” and called for “corrupt” journalists to be assassinated. What has been the effect of his anti-media rhetoric on freedom of expression in the country?
Concepcion: I actually think there’s very much freedom of expression. Where can you find a government that allows you to follow police operations, or go inside jails and interview inmates? In fact, there hasn’t been one journalist that has been killed related to the war on drugs. And I’ve never been threatened directly. But there are the trolls on social media.
If you interview Duterte like you were sitting down in a pub, you would get more
R&K: Have Filipino journalists had a difficult time figuring out how to cover an unpredictable president like Duterte?
Concepcion: There are cultural gaps. Duterte comes from Mindanao in the south. The character of Duterte is the typical character of people from that island. If we are more open to it, then we can actually deal with him in a better way. The people in Manila consider themselves very intellectual, like a New Yorker compared to some guy from Iowa. But I find people like Duterte are more effective than us. We eat the cake that he feeds us. We just think he’s stupid or crazy.
When people interview him like a CNN reporter would interview him, you get nothing. You get bullshit answers. But if you interview him like you were sitting down in a pub, you would get many things. We’re very Western. We want to be like CNN and BBC, but if we remove this and become our own kind of Filipino journalist, then we can have good interviews. It’s a cultural fight.
R&K: What has the public’s perception of the media been like amid all the killings?
Concepcion: People are tired, so many just keep their minds away from the news. But it’s very mixed at the moment because there are many kinds of media. Online media consumers make up a small percentage of people in our country because they can afford access. These are the middle and upper-middle classes. They have the time to sit down and stare at their monitors, unlike the majority of the people who are poor and don’t have time because they have to survive.
With the poor people, they sometimes think that the journalists are their saviors, but a lot of time when we go to crime scenes or when somebody dies, we go back the following day to see the wake. Sometimes when we go back the families are very mad at us. They say, “I heard on the radio or on TV that the reporter said our house is a drug den.” Or they say, “The photo of my husband made him look like a pig. Why did you portray him as a pig?”
R&K: Do you think you’ll ever burn out and stop covering the killings?
Concepcion: I’ve passed over that. You can’t get burnt out because there are so many stories to tell. We’re still here because of our own desire to actually collect the stories. The reason is not to be popular or famous but the reason is to be there when the time comes for the victims to seek justice. They are alone. They have no one to hold onto. So being there for them is what we want to do. If we can make it easier for them in any way, we’re happy.
R&K: At some point, every journalist asks him or herself, ‘am I actually making a difference?’ Do you think you have?
Concepcion: Of course you can’t have justice just yet, but with our stories, we were able to sometimes raise funds or help people get over their misery. We’ve made friends. We’ve met new families. Sometimes, of course, you wonder why you’re there, but then you realize that it’s your mission. And I get to work with all these great photographers and journalists. It’s all really about being able to make a widow feel better or making a mother who lost her son feel better. It’s about making friends with them. It’s about knowing a different world.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.