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‘How many were not filmed?’: Calls to end police brutality renewed after cop killed mother and son in Tarlac

By Catalina Ricci S. Madarang – December 21, 2020, Philstar.com/Interaksyon

Calls to end police brutality dominated conversations online on Monday after a cop was caught in a viral video killing an unarmed mother and son in Paniqui, Tarlac.

Police officer later identified as Senior Master Sergeant  Jonel Nuezca on Sunday shot 52-year-old Sonya Gregorio and her son, Frank Anthony Gregorio, 25, over an altercation regarding the latter’s use of “boga,” an improvised noisemaker used during the holidays in the Philippines.

Nuezca, who was reportedly assigned to the Parañaque City Crime laboratory, surrendered at the Rosales Pangasinan Municipal Police Station an hour after the incident.

He also turned over his PNP-issued 9mm semi-auto pistol that was used in the crime.

In an interview with GMA News’ “Unang Balita,” Police Lieutenant Colonel Noriel Rombaoa, chief of the Paniqui Police, said that the suspect went to the victims’ houses to confront them.

“Pumunta yung police sa bahay ng biktima at nagkaroon ng pagtatalo, naungkat ang matagal na nilang alitan sa right-of-way,” he said.

Nuezca refused to say anything except he regrets shooting the two victims, Rombaoa added. He also stated that the former will face a double murder complaint from the local police.

Data from Police Regional Office III chief Police Brigadier General Val de Leon showed that Nuezca had faced grave misconduct or homicide cases in May and December last year. However, these cases were dismissed due to lack of substantial evidence.

Nuezca had faced grave misconduct (homicide) cases in May and December 2019. Both, however, were dismissed due to lack of substantial evidence.

Stop the killings

Several hashtags and the phrase “My father is a policeman”
dominated the top five spots on Twitter Philippines’ trending list on Monday as concerned Filipinos and human rights advocates called to end police brutality in the Philippines.

The phrase was uttered by the daughter of Nuezca during the altercation between the victims and her policeman father, seconds before the Gregorios were shot dead.

Nuezca’s daughter also received backlash online for this remark. Twitter user @lakwatsarah, said that the daughter might have been raised to believe that her father is above the law.

“She was probably raised to believe he can shoot anyone who messes with them. He shot them. He made that choice. The daughter is a victim of his parenting,” she said.

Aside from this phrase, the hashtags in the local Twitter’s top trending list as of writing are:

  1. #StopTheKillingsPH with over 670,000 tweets
  2. #JusticeforSonyaGregoria with over 360,000 tweets
  3. #EndPoliceBrutality with over 286,000 tweets
  4. #Pulisangterorista with over 191,000 tweets

The calls for justice for Sonya and Frank Gregorio were also launched on Facebook.

Progressive groups such as the League of Filipino Students and Gabriela Youth issued separate statements that denounced Nuezca’s brutal act and other cases of abuse and killings in the Philippines.

‘How many were not filmed?’

Meanwhile, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said that the shooting incident in Paniqui is an “isolated incident.” He also said that “the sin of Nuezca is not the sin of the entire Philippine National Police.”

“This is an unfortunate but isolated incident. While there are unfortunate incidents like this, the vast majority of our PNP personnel perform their sworn duties everyday with honor and integrity to protect and serve the people,” Año said.

Writers Emiliana Kampilan or “Dead Balagtas” and Alfonso Manalastas, however, noted the possible deaths at the hands of the police and the military that were not caught on camera.

Bar 2019 topnotcher Kenneth Manuel echoed the similar view and questioned if there were more underreported victims.

“Minsan mapapaisip ka na lang, ilan na kaya nakitil nito pero hindi lang naibalita? Mas mapapaisip ka, ilan kaya sa kanila ang kayang pumatay ng ganito?” Manuel wrote.

Several concerned Filipinos also questioned this possibility, while citing that drug suspects were killed before because they allegedly fought back or “nanlaban” but there were no videos to prove them.

Detained Sen. Leila De Lima in 2018 called out the government and former presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo for using the “nanlaban” narrative.

“I cannot allow Panelo to continue to poison the public’s mind with the Duterte administration’s oft-repeated but flawed proposition that the increasing number of deaths due to the crackdown on drugs was because suspected drug offenders have all resisted police arrest with violence,” she said in December 2018.

Meanwhile, others lamented the Christmas bonuses police officers received despite the reported brutality.

“Tapos mas mataas ang bonus ng mga pulis kaysa health workers?” he said.

Not the first time

Data from World Population Review showed that in 2020, the Philippines ranked third among the countries with the highest cases of police killings wherein 3,451 people were killed or a rate of 322 victims per 10 million people.

In a September report from US-based Human Rights Watch, citing government data, the PNP killed 50% more people between April and July of this year despite the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic.

HRW noted that this figure is only for deaths in police anti-drug operations.

Last June, the rising cases of police abuse in the Philippines which happened before and during the pandemic were juxtaposed to the killings perpetrated by the police in the United States.

The death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black American who was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis triggered a nationwide campaign for equal rights for all people of color.

RELATED: ‘I can’t breathe!,’ ‘Tama na po’: Police brutality in US, Philippines juxtaposed

Duterte’s ‘shoot-to-kill’ remarks

Some Filipinos blamed such rogue activities among PNP members on President Rodrigo Duterte’s continuous “shoot-to-kill” remarks since he took office in 2016.

In a televised address aired last December 16, Duterte denied ordering the police to “shoot to kill” civilians.

“May mga pulis na talagang may ano sa — diretso salvage ganoon. Wala akong inutos na ganoon. Remember, in all of my utterances, ang galit ko ‘yan when I say, ‘Do not destroy my country, the Republic of the Philippines, who elected me as President. Do not destroy our sons and daughters because I will kill you.’ Sabi ko — hindi ko sinabi, ‘They impede, they will kill you.’ The military will… I said, ‘I will kill you,’” the said.

“Pero sabi ko, ito, ‘Go out and destroy the apparatus.’ Iyan. Pagka nagkabarilan diyan in destroying the apparatus, goodbye ka. Kaya sabi ko, ‘Ako, I take full responsibility for my order.’ ‘But remember,’ I said, ‘enforce the law in accordance with what you have learned then self-defense.’ Defense of ano ‘yan. Stranger kung kasama mo. In law it’s called a stranger, maski kilala mo. Defense of relative,” he also said.

‘Walk the talk’

Amid the outrage on Nuezca’s brutal act both Paniqui Police chief Rombaoa and PNP chief Police General Major Debold Sinas reminded their colleagues to observe “maximum tolerance.”

“Sa mga kasamahan po natin sa pulisya, dapat self-control kasi nga maximum tolerance tayo, tayo ang may armas. Kung merong umaagrabiyado sa atin merong right forum po riyan, pwede nating kasuhan, not to the point na gagamitin natin ang baril natin,” Rombaoa was quoted as saying.“Lagi nating tandaan ang ating sinumpaang tungkulin bilang tagapagpatupad ng batas. We should walk the talk in the PNP,” Sinas said. #

‘Aswang’ Documentary Review: Do Not Dare Look Away

MANILA, PHILIPPINES - JULY 23: (EDITORS NOTE: Image contains graphic content.) Two women cry in grief after armed assailants in a motorcycle shot their loved one in a main thoroughfare on July 23, 2016 in Manila, Philippines. The victim was an alleged drug peddler a claim disputed by his wife and maintained her husband is nothing more than a pedicab driver plying his trade when he was shot in front of her. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared a war on crime and drugs after winning the presidential elections on May 9, 2016. President Duterte has recently been living up to his nickname, 'The Punisher', as Philippine police have been conducting night time drug raids on almost a daily basis. With reports of at least 300 drug related deaths since the start of July, Human rights groups and the Catholic church have objected to the use of brutal force by the Police. (Photo by Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images)

July 20, 2020/

By L.S. Mendizabal

Kodao Productions

Pumarito ka. Bahala ka, kukunin ka ng aswang diyan! (Come here, or else the aswang will get you!)” is a threat often directed at Filipino children by their mothers. In fact, you can’t be Filipino without having heard it at least once in your life. For as early as in childhood, we are taught to fear creatures we’ve only seen in nightmares triggered by bedtime stories told by our Lolas.

In Philippine folklore, an “aswang” is a shape-shifting monster that roams in the night to prey on people or animals for survival. They may take a human form during the day. The concept of “monster” was first introduced to us in the 16th century by the Spanish to demonize animist shamans, known as “babaylan” and “asog,” in order to persuade Filipino natives to abandon their “anitos” (nature, ancestor spirits) and convert to Roman Catholicism—a colonizing tactic that proved to be effective from Luzon to Northern Mindanao.

In the early 1950s, seeing that Filipinos continued to be superstitious, the Central Intelligence Agency weaponized folklore against the Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon (Hukbalahap), an army of mostly local peasants who opposed US intervention in the country following our victory over the Japanese in World War II. The CIA trained the Philippine Army to butcher and puncture holes in the dead bodies of kidnapped Huk fighters to make them look like they were bitten and killed by an aswang. They would then pile these carcasses on the roadside where the townspeople could see them, spreading fear and terror in the countryside. Soon enough, people stopped sympathizing with and giving support to the Huks, frightened that the aswang might get them, too.

Fast forward to a post-Duterte Philippines wherein the sight of splayed corpses has become as common as of the huddled living bodies of beggars in the streets. Under the harsh, flickering streetlights, it’s difficult to tell the dead and the living apart. This is one of many disturbing images you may encounter in Alyx Ayn Arumpac’s Aswang. The documentary, which premiered online and streamed for free for a limited period last weekend, chronicles the first two years of President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign on illegal drugs. “Oplan Tokhang” authorized the Philippine National Police to conduct a door-to-door manhunt of drug dealers and/or users. According to human rights groups, Tokhang has killed an estimated 30,000 Filipinos, most of whom were suspected small-time drug offenders without any actual charges filed against them. A pattern emerged of eerily identical police reports across cases: They were killed in a “neutralization” because they fought back (“nanlaban”) with a gun, which was the same rusty .38 caliber pistol repeatedly found along with packets of methamphetamine (“shabu”) near the bloodied corpses. When children and innocent people died during operations, PNP would call them “collateral damage.” Encouraged by Duterte himself, there were also vigilante killings too many to count. Some were gunned down by unidentified riding-in-tandem suspects, while some ended up as dead bodies wrapped in duct tape, maimed or accessorized with a piece of cardboard bearing the words, “Pusher ako, huwag tularan” (I’m a drug pusher, do not emulate). Almost all the dead casualties shared one thing in common: they were poor. Virtually no large-scale drug lord suffered the same fate they did.

And for a while, it was somehow tempting to call it “fate.” Filipinos were being desensitized to the sheer number of drug-related extrajudicial killings (a thousand a month, according to the film). “Nanlaban” jokes and memes circulated on Facebook and news of slain Tokhang victims were no longer news as their names and faces were reduced to figures in a death toll that saw no end.

As much as Aswang captures the real horrors and gore of the drug war, so has it shown effectively the abnormal “sense of normal” in the slums of Manila as residents deal with Tokhang on the daily. Fearing for their lives has become part of their routine along with making sure they have something to eat or slippers on their feet. This biting everyday reality is highlighted by Arumpac’s storytelling unlike that of any documentary I’ve ever seen. Outlined by poetic narration with an ominous tone that sounds like a legitimately hair-raising ghost story, Aswang transports the audience, whether they like it or not, from previously seeing Tokhang exclusively on the news to the actual scenes of the crime and funerals through the eyes of four main individuals: a nightcrawler photojournalist and dear family friend, Ciriaco Santiago III (“Brother Jun” to many), a funeral parlor operator, a street kid and an unnamed woman.

Along with other nightcrawlers, Bro. Jun waits for calls or texts alerting them of Tokhang killings all over Manila’s nooks and crannies. What sets him apart from the others, perhaps motivated by his mission as Redemptorist Brother, is that he speaks to the families of the murdered victims to not only obtain information but to comfort them. In fact, Bro. Jun rarely speaks throughout the film. Most of the time, he’s just listening, his brows furrowed with visible concern and empathy. It’s as if the bereaved are confessing to him not their own transgressions but those committed against them by the state. One particular scene that really struck me is when he consoles a middle-aged man whose brother was just killed not far from his house. “Kay Duterte ako pero mali ang ginawa nila sa kapatid ko” (I am for Duterte but what they did to my brother was wrong), he says to Bro. Jun in between sobs. Meanwhile, a mother tells the story of how her teenage son went out with friends and never came home. His corpse later surfaced in a mortuary. “Just because Duterte gave [cops] the right to kill, some of them take advantage because they know there won’t be consequences,” she angrily says in Filipino before wailing in pain while showing Bro. Jun photos of her son smiling in selfies and then laying pale and lifeless at the morgue.

The Eusebio Funeral Services is a setting in the film that becomes as familiar as the blood-soaked alleys of the city. Its operator is an old man who gives the impression of being seasoned in his profession. And yet, nothing has prepared him for the burden of accommodating at least five cadavers every night when he was used to only one to two a week. When asked where all the unclaimed bodies go, he casually answers, “mass burial.” We later find out at the local cemetery that “mass burial” is the stacking of corpses in tiny niches they designated for the nameless and kinless. Children pause in their games as they look on at this crude interment, after which a man seals the niche with hollow blocks and wet cement, ready to be smashed open again for the next occupant/s. At night, the same cemetery transforms into a shelter for the homeless whose blanketed bodies resemble those covered in cloth at Eusebio Funeral Services.

Tama na po, may exam pa ako bukas” (Please stop, I still have an exam tomorrow). 17-year-old high school student, Kian Delo Santos, pleaded for his life with these words before police shot him dead in a dark alley near his home. The documentary takes us to this very alley without the foreknowledge that the corpse we see on the screen is in fact Kian’s. At his wake, we meet Jomari, a little boy who looks not older than seven but talks like a grown man. He fondly recalls Kian as a kind friend, short of saying that there was no way he could’ve been involved in drugs. Jomari should know, his parents are both in jail for using and peddling drugs. At a very young age, he knows that the cops are the enemy and that he must run at the first sign of them. Coupled with this wisdom and prematurely heightened sense of self-preservation is Jomari’s innocence, glimpses of which we see when he’s thrilled to try on new clothes and when he plays with his friends. Children in the slums are innocent but not naïve. They play with wild abandon but their exchanges are riddled with expletives, drugs and violence. They even reenact a Tokhang scene where the cops beat up and shoot a victim.

Towards the end of the film, a woman whose face is hidden and identity kept private gives a brief interview where, like the children drawing monsters only they could see in horror movies, she sketches a prison cell she was held in behind a bookshelf. Her interview alternates with shots of the actual secret jail that was uncovered by the press in a police station in Tondo in 2017. “Naghuhugas lang po ako ng pinggan n’ung kinuha nila ‘ko!” (I was just washing the dishes when they took me!), screams one woman the very second the bookshelf is slid open like a door. Camera lights reveal the hidden cell to be no wider than a corridor with no window, light or ventilation. More than ten people are inside. They later tell the media that they were abducted and have been detained for a week without cases filed against them, let alone a police blotter. They slept in their own shit and urine, were tortured and electrocuted by the cops, and told that they’d only be released if they paid the PNP money ranging from 10 000 to 100 000 pesos. Instead of being freed that day, their papers are processed for their transfer to different jails.

Aswang is almost surreal in its depiction of social realities. It is spellbinding yet deeply disturbing in both content and form. Its extremely violent visuals and hopelessly bleak scenes are eclipsed by its more delicate moments: Bro. Jun praying quietly by his lonesome after a night of pursuing trails of blood, Jomari clapping his hands in joyful glee as he becomes the owner of a new pair of slippers, an old woman playing with her pet dog in an urban poor community, a huge rally where protesters demand justice for all the victims of EJKs and human rights violations, meaning that they were not forgotten. It’s also interesting to note that while the film covers events in a span of two years, the recounting of these incidents is not chronological as seen in Bro. Jun’s changing haircuts and in Jomari’s unchanging outfit from when he gets new slippers to when he’s found after months of going missing. Without naming people, places and even dates, with Arumpacletting the poor do most of the heavy lifting bysimply telling their stories on state terrorism and impunity in their own language, Aswang succeeds in demonstrating how Duterte’s war on drugs is, in reality, a genocide of the poor, elevating the film beyond numb reportage meant to merely inform the public to being a testament to the people’s struggle. The scattered sequence, riveting images, sinister music and writing that borrows elements from folklore and the horror genre make Aswang feel more like a dream than a documentary—a nightmare, to be precise. And then, a rude awakening. The film compels us to replay and review Oplan Tokhang by bringing the audience to a place of such intimate and troubling closeness with the dead and the living they had left behind.

Its unfiltered rawness makes Aswang a challenging yet crucial watch. Blogger and company CEO, Cecile Zamora, wrote on her Instagram stories that she only checked Aswang out since it was trending but that she gave up 23 minutes in because it depressed her, declaring the documentary “not worth her mental health” and discouraging her 52,000 followers from watching it, too. Naturally, her tone-deaf statements went viral on Twitter and in response to the backlash, she posted a photo of a Tokhang victim’s family with a caption that said she bought them a meal and gave them money as if this should exempt her from criticism and earn her an ally cookie, instead.

 Aswang is definitely not a film about privileged Filipinos like Zamora—who owns designer handbags and lives in a luxurious Ed Calma home—but this doesn’t make the documentary any less relevant or necessary for them to watch. Zamora missed the point entirely: Aswang is supposed to make her and the rest of us feel upset! It nails the purpose of art in comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable. It establishes that the only aswang that exists is not a precolonial shaman or a shape-shifting monster, but fear itself—the fear that dwells within us that is currently aggravated and used by a fascist state to force us into quiet submission and apathy towards the most marginalized sectors of society.

Before the credits roll, the film verbalizes its call to action in the midst of the ongoing slaughter of the poor and psychological warfare by the Duterte regime:

“Kapag sinabi nilang may aswang, ang gusto talaga nilang sabihin ay, ‘Matakot ka.’ Itong lungsod na napiling tambakan ng katawan ay lalamunin ka, tulad ng kung paano nilalamon ng takot ang tatag. Pero meron pa ring hindi natatakot at nagagawang harapin ang halimaw. Dito nagsisimula.” (When they say there’s a monster, what they really want to say is “be afraid.” This city, chosen to be the dumpsite of the dead, will devour you as fear devours courage. But there are still those who are not afraid and are able to look the monster in the eye. This is where it begins).

During these times, when an unjust congressional vote recently shut down arguably the country’s largest multimedia network in an effort to stifle press freedom and when the Anti-Terrorism Law is now in effect, Aswang should be made more accessible to the masses because it truly is a must-see for every Filipino, and by “must-see,” I mean, “Don’t you dare look away.” #

= = = = = =


Buan, L. (2020). “UN Report: Documents suggest PH Police Planted Guns in Drug War Ops”. Rappler. Retrieved from https://rappler.com/nation/united-nations-report-documents-suggest-philippine-police-planted-guns-drug-war-operations

Ichimura, A., & Severino, A. (2019). “How the CIA Used the Aswang to Win a War in the Philippines”. Esquire. Retrieved from https://www.esquiremag.ph/long-reads/features/cia-aswang-war-a00304-a2416-20191019-lfrm

Lim, B. C. (2015). “Queer Aswang Transmedia: Folklore as Camp”. Kritika Kultura, 24. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/3mj1k076

Tan, L. (2017). “Duterte Encourages Vigilante Killings, Tolerates Police Modus – Human Rights Watch”. CNN Philippines. Retrieved from https://cnnphilippines.com/news/2017/03/02/Duterte-PNP-war-on-drugs-Human-Rights-Watch.html

Continuing human rights violations under Marcos Jr.

Sep 8, 2023

Carlos H. Conde

We hope the European Union will publicly and unequivocally rectify its positions and send a strong message to Philippine authorities that progress in bilateral relations depends on progress in human rights

I will provide an overview of the main human rights concerns in the Philippines, starting with the “war on drugs,” but focusing not only on that, and expose how impunity for those abuses remains the norm.

While the new administration has been less confrontational and more diplomatic than the previous one, that does not mean that the human rights situation in the country has improved. We encourage the European Union, in all its components, to remain focused on the situation on the ground, and not on the rhetoric or vague promises by the administration.

Better rhetoric on human rights is welcome, but the government also needs to walk the talk, and I’m sorry to say that, so far, it has not.

Here is the overview:

First, despite President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. saying publicly that the “war on drugs” initiated by his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, will have a “new face” aimed at drug rehabilitation, drug-related extrajudicial killings have continued. Notably, Marcos has not rescinded the executive issuances that provide wide authority to the police to conduct anti-drug raids and operations, and that are effectively the legal basis used by the police to try to justify unlawful killings. 

According to independent monitoring by the University of the Philippines’ Third World Studies Center, 397 people have been killed in “drug-related violence” since June 30, 2022, the first day of the Marcos administration, up to August 31 this year – on average about one fatality each day.

Accountability for these killings has not been a priority for either the Duterte administration or this administration. Of the total deaths – estimates range from 6,252, according to official police figures, to more than 30,000, according to domestic human rights groups – only two cases have resulted in convictions of the assailants. The police claim they investigated 300 killings but only filed charges against 52 police officers – these cases are still pending. A vast majority of deaths remain uninvestigated.

Finally on this point, the Philippine government, including President Marcos, has denounced the International Criminal Court’s investigation into possible crimes against humanity related to “drug war” killings under Duterte. Marcos is an ally of Duterte, whose daughter serves as vice president of the Philippines. The Philippine government has vowed not to cooperate with the ICC investigation but at the same time is doing very little to secure accountability through domestic avenues.

Second, the Philippine government continues to target leftist political activists, civil society leaders and perceived critics with threats, judicial harassment and at times violence. This abuse often takes the form of “red-tagging,” labelling critics as supporters of the communist New People’s Army insurgents. The red-tagging is often followed by the filing of trumped-up charges and, in some cases, terrorism prosecutions. Domestic rights groups have expressed concern about the misuse of the Anti-Terrorism Law of 2020 to harass political activists. 

The government task force on insurgency is often behind red-tagging. Some officials – such as Justice Secretary Crispin Remulla – also red-tag groups. Remulla has red-tagged Human Rights Watch in remarks to the press in mid-July 2023. Not even the Duterte administration did what the Marcos government is doing now. Officials have often used red-tagging to target union leaders and their supporters, by harassing them at their homes to dissuade them from joining unions. Teachers, judges, lawyers, and journalists, have likewise been red-tagged. 

Absence of UN monitoring

Former senator Leila de Lima, the chief critic of the “drug war,” remains in police detention for more than seven years now, facing bogus drug charges. Cases against the news site Rappler and its CEO Maria Ressa are ongoing.

Pressure by international actors remain crucial to improve the human rights situation in the Philippines. 

Please note that, as we speak, there is no UN monitoring of the situation in the Philippines. There is a UN Joint Program (UNJP) but that’s a technical cooperation program aimed at capacity-building, not monitoring the situation in the country.  

We have urged the UN Human Rights Council members, including EU member states, to remedy that and to change the mandate of the UNJP, so that it includes a monitoring and reporting component.

As we speak, the GSP+ monitoring by the EU is the only international reporting mechanism on human rights in the Philippines. We understand the EU reports are expected in a matter of weeks.

We don’t know how the trialogue for the GSP+ reform will proceed, and we hope there will be a reform. But in any case the Philippines remains bound by the GSP+ human rights obligations, and will remain so probably for years, for however long it will take to conclude negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement. 

Take more vocal approach

Until then, it is crucial that the EU takes a much more vocal approach, and that it states clearly and publicly:

  • what specific actions are expected by the government of the Philippines to comply with their GSP+ obligations;
  • what will be the consequences in case of failure to comply; and 
  • what actions need to be taken by the government so that the Commission, the Parliament and the Council can actually consider concluding and ratifying the Free Trade Agreement. 

This is all the more necessary after the uncritical visit by President von der Leyen, and we hope the EU will publicly and unequivocally rectify its positions and send a very strong message to the Philippine authorities that progress in bilateral relations, including trade, depends on progress in human rights. And that there are consequences for persistent abuses and impunity. – Rappler.com

Carlos H. Conde, senior Philippine researcher of Human Rights Watch, delivered this opening statement during the September 7, 2023 hearing of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights in Brussels. The piece was slightly edited for brevity.

Behind the AI boom, an army of overseas workers in ‘digital sweatshops’

By Rebecca Tan and Regine Cabato

August 28, 2023, www.washingtonpost.com

CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines — In a coastal city in the southern Philippines, thousands of young workers log online every day to support the booming business of artificial intelligence.

In dingy internet cafes, jam-packed office spaces or at home, they annotate the masses of data that American companies need to train their artificial intelligence models. The workers differentiate pedestrians from palm trees in videos used to develop the algorithms for automated driving; they label images so AI can generate representations of politicians and celebrities; they edit chunks of text to ensure language models like ChatGPT don’t churn out gibberish.

More than 2 million people in the Philippines perform this type of “crowdwork,” according to informal government estimates, as part of AI’s vast underbelly. While AI is often thought of as human-free machine learning, the technology actually relies on the labor-intensive efforts of a workforce spread across much of the Global South and often subject to exploitation.

The mathematical models underpinning AI tools get smarter by analyzing large data sets, which need to be accurate, precise and legible to be useful. Low-quality data yields low-quality AI. So click by click, a largely unregulated army of humans is transforming the raw data into AI feedstock.

In the Philippines, one of the world’s biggest destinations for outsourced digital work, former employees say that at least 10,000 of these workers do this labor on a platform called Remotasks, which is owned by the $7 billion San Francisco start-up Scale AI.

Scale AI has paid workers at extremely low rates, routinely delayed or withheld payments and provided few channels for workers to seek recourse, according to interviews with workers, internal company messages and payment records, and financial statements. Rights groups and labor researchers say Scale AI is among a number of American AI companies that have not abided by basic labor standards for their workers abroad.

Of 36 current and former freelance workers interviewed, all but two said they’ve had payments from the platform delayed, reduced or canceled after completing tasks. The workers, known as “taskers,” said they often earn far below the minimum wage — which in the Philippines ranges from $6 to $10 a day depending on region — though at times they do make more than the minimum.

Scale AI, which does work for firms like Meta, Microsoft and generative AI companies like Open AI, the creator of ChatGPT,says on its website that it is “proud to pay rates at a living wage.” In a statement, Anna Franko, a Scale AI spokesperson, said the pay system on Remotasks “is continually improving” based on worker feedback and that “delays or interruptions to payments are exceedingly rare.”

But on an internal messaging platform for Remotasks, which The Washington Post accessed in July, notices of late or missing payments from supervisors were commonplace. On some projects, there were multiple notices in a single month. Sometimes, supervisors told workers payments were withheld because work was inaccurate or late. Other times, supervisors gave no explanation. Attempts to track down lost payments often went nowhere, workers said — or worse, led to their accounts being deactivated.

Charisse, 23, said she spent four hours on a task that was meant to earn her $2, and Remotasks paid her 30 cents.

Jackie, 26, said he worked three days on a project that he thought would earn him $50, and he got $12.

Benz, 36, said he’d racked up more than $150 in payments when he was suddenly booted from the platform. He never got the money, he said.

Paul, 25, said he’s lost count of how much money he’s been owed over three years of working on Remotasks. Like other current Remotasks freelancers, Paul spoke on the condition that only his first name be published to avoid being expelled from the platform. He started “tasking” full time in 2020 after graduating from university. He was once excited to help build AI, he said, but these days, he mostly feels embarrassed by how little he earns.

“The budget for all this, I know it’s big,” Paul said, staring into his hands at a coffee shop in Cagayan de Oro. “None of that is trickling down to us.”

Much of the ethical and regulatory debate over AI has focused so far on its propensity for bias and potential to go rogue or be abused, such as for disinformation.But companies producing AI technology are also charting a new frontier in labor exploitation, researchers say.

In enlisting people in the Global South as freelance contractors, micro-tasking platforms like Remotasks sidestep labor regulations — such as a minimum wage and a fair contract — in favor of terms and conditions they set independently, said Cheryll Soriano, a professor at De La Salle University in Manila who studies digital labor in the Philippines. “What it comes down to,” she said, “is a total absence of standards.”

Dominic Ligot, a Filipino AI ethicist, called these new workplaces “digital sweatshops.”

Presented with The Post’s findings about Remotasks, government officials in the Philippines said they were alarmed but admitted they weren’t sure how to regulate the platform. The Department of Information and Communications Technology, which regulates the tech industry,said it wasn’t aware of how much workers make on micro-tasking platforms. Data annotation is an “informal sector,” said department head Ivan John Uy. “Regulatory protective mechanisms are not there.”

Overseas outposts

Founded in 2016 by young college dropouts and backed by some $600 million in venture capital, Scale AI has cast itself as a champion of American efforts in the race for AI supremacy. In addition to working with large technology companies, Scale AI has been awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to label data for the U.S. Department of Defense. To work on such sensitive, specialized data sets, the company has begun seeking out more contractors in the United States, though the vast majority of the workforce is still located in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Remotasks says on its website it has more than 240,000 taskers. But speaking to CNN in June, Alexandr Wang, Scale AI’s 26-year-old chief executive, declined to confirm how many people label data for his company, saying only that he believes in AI that “enables the collective expertise of as many people as possible.”

People in the Philippines started working for Remotasks as early as 2017. In 2019, the company incorporated a legal entity in the country called Smart Ecosystem Philippines Inc. (SEPI), according to business registration documents. A year later, when the pandemic sent droves of workers home, Remotasks exploded in popularity.

In the southern region of Mindanao, where decades of political unrest have left economic opportunities lacking, young people gathered at internet cafes to work on the platform or were recruited by SEPI to work at crowded offices leased from local businesses.

In Cagayan de Oro on Mindanao’s northern coast, SEPI has enlisted freelancers to work in at least seven locations. These included a room above a computer equipment store, a narrow five-story building where some 900 taskers worked in shifts and the corner unit of a strip mall, still adorned in July with banners advertising an “official training boot camp” for Remotasks. In 2021, according to financial statements, SEPI paid more than $2 million in rent in the Philippines.

Franko, the Scale AI spokesperson, said the company set up SEPI in the Philippines to operate Remotasks, which is separate to protect customer confidentiality.

Initially, taskers said, they could earn as much as $200 in a week. Then in 2021, around the time Remotasks expanded to India and to Venezuela, pay rates plunged, according to workers and screenshots of project assignments. Filipino freelancers went from earning $10 per task on some projects to less than 1 cent, according to a former SEPI staff employee who spoke on the condition he be identified by his nickname, Doy, to avoid retribution from the company.

By auctioning off work globally, Remotasks has created a “race to the bottom” for wages, said the owner of an outsourcing firm that has worked with SEPI. “It’s vicious competition,” said the owner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect business interests.

Raising complaints

When freelance workers complete a project, it goes through several levels of review before it’s evaluated by teams in the United States, taskers said.If the work is approved, payments are supposed to be credited to workers through platforms like PayPal. But sometimes payments are withheld with no explanation, taskers said. And if the work is rejected, they said, the freelancers can be asked to redo the tasks, be given a “compensation” rate as low as 2 percent of the original payment or not be paid at all.

“If you complain and raise your voice just a little, you get deactivated,” said Joseph,a Cagayan de Oro tasker. In 2020, he said, he confronted his project supervisor about the number of tasks he’d completed without receiving payment and was locked out of his account the next day.

Every start-up is an AI company now. Bubble fears are growing.

Doy, who until recently worked as one of several hundred salaried employees at SEPI, said he and other staff have for years raised the taskers’ complaints to company managers and Remotasks executives. Sometimes, Remotasks executives would instruct SEPI employees to tell freelancers that the company was working on resolving the payment issues even if it never was, Doy said. Other times, the executives would tell SEPI employees to direct freelancers to the Remotasks help center, though it was well-known, he said, that “filing a ticket” went nowhere.

Franko said the company provides “multiple channels for questions and support,” including trained specialists who review and respond to pay disputes.

‘We don’t have a choice’

Last year, the Oxford Internet Institute, which scores digital work platforms on labor standards, highlighted Scale AI for “obfuscating” its labor process. In its assessment this year, the institute, part of Oxford University, gave Remotasks a score of 1 out of 10, failing the company on key metrics including its ability to fully pay workers.

Oxford researcher Jonas Valente said Scale AI profits by offering clients high-quality data while relegating much of the responsibility and cost of quality assurance to individual taskers. In its terms and conditions, Remotasks says it “reserves the right” to withhold payment, remove freelancers from projects or deactivate their accounts for work deemed inaccurate. This “non-specified” set of rules, Valente said, lets the company decide if and when it wants to pay them for work even after it’s already been done.

Franko said the company was “disappointed” in the Oxford report. “At Scale, data annotation has always been designed as flexible, gig-based work,” she said. “We’re proud of the work opportunities provided on Remotasks.”

Labor groups in the Philippines blame the government for not regulating platforms like Remotasks. But officials say they worry about stifling such a new industry. Studies by online payment companies and the International Labor Organization (ILO) show that online freelance work is growing faster in the Philippines than almost anywhere else.

Globally, the data collection and annotation industry is expected to reach $17.1 billion by 2030, according to Grand View Research, a market forecaster. According to a 2021 ILO study, the vast majority of online freelance work in the world is performed by workers in the Global South, nearly half in India and the Philippines alone.

Monchito Ibrahim, a former undersecretary for the Philippine Department of Information and Communications Technology, said micro-tasking “can’t be our future.”

For young people in places like Mindanao struggling to find work, there are few alternatives. Scale AI can exploit Filipino workers, said Philip Alchie Elemento, 37, an ex-tasker, “because they know we don’t have a choice.”

In July, Paul, the tasker from Cagayan de Oro, said he’d made up his mind to quit Remotasks. He was fed up with not getting paid and anxious about how much he was drawing down on his savings. “I know I deserve much better,” Paul said.

A month later, he was still at Remotasks. He wanted to leave, Paul said. He just didn’t know where else to go.

Bobby Lagsa in Cagayan de Oro contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Anna Franko, the Scale AI spokesperson, did not provide details about the operations of SEPI, which set up Remotasks in the Philippines. In a statement prior to publication, she had said that Remotasks was a separate platform in order to protect customer confidentiality. The story has been corrected.

By Rebecca Tan

Rebecca Tan is the Southeast Asia Bureau Chief for the Washington Post. She was previously a reporter on the Local desk, covering government in D.C. and Maryland. She was part of the team that won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in public service for coverage of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.


By Regine Cabato

Regine Cabato is the Manila reporter for The Washington Post Southeast Asia Bureau. Before joining The Post in 2018, she worked as a writer for broadcast and digital platforms at CNN Philippines. Twitter

For many abused migrant domestic workers, the only way out is to flee

Aug 29, 2023 1:55 PM PHT

Ana P. Santos

Escape is the only way out of domestic servitude for many migrant domestic workers employed by abusive diplomats and employees of international organizations

First of 4 parts

Reporting for this project was supported by JournalismFund Europe’s Modern Slavery Unveiled Grant Programme and the Pulitzer Center.

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands – Go out the back door. Get into the taxi. Go to the Amsterdam Centraal Station. There, people will be waiting for you.

Cora Espanto went over the plan again and again in her head, replaying the instructions her son, Jon-Jon, gave her: “I’ll leave the door ajar. Walk slowly so the floor won’t creak. Don’t ever look back.”

It was 5:30 in the morning but the European summer sun was already shining. From their room in the attic, Espanto and her daughter Sheryl tiptoed out the back door where Jon-Jon was already waiting. An electrician, Jon-Jon had rewired the automatic door so it wouldn’t make that annoying buzzing noise when it opened.

The cook crawled out the window from her room on the second floor to avoid waking the guard. Carefully, she scaled down the ladder Jon-Jon had set up hours before.

The domestic worker at their neighbor’s house took them in to hide while the four of them waited for their taxi.

At the Amsterdam Centraal Station, the owner of a cargo forwarding company handed them train tickets. It was through the owner that they had earlier snuck their belongings out of the ambassador’s house, under the guise of sending a balikbayan box to the Philippines.

“I could finally breathe. But I was still crying. I felt like a bird that had been set free from its cage,” said Espanto.

Across various periods from 2003 to 2008, Espanto and her two children had worked for a Saudi Arabian diplomat posted to The Netherlands.

The three of them were paid an average of $350 (P19,484) each every month – about $1,000 (P55,670) less than the Dutch mandatory minimum wage at the time. When Espanto had called the Dutch foreign ministry to ask for help, they told her she had to make a complaint in person – practically impossible for the Espantos who worked all hours of the day. Ministry officials could not go to the ambassador’s residence because of his diplomatic immunity.

Their only way out was to escape.

Diplomatic immunity – Rescue and escape

The Vienna Convention allows diplomats and employees of international organizations varying levels of diplomatic immunity. In cases where they allegedly breach the host country’s laws, they cannot be arrested, detained, or prosecuted. The residences and vehicles of officials who enjoy full immunity, such as an ambassador, cannot be entered or searched.

For migrant domestic workers, who often work and live in the diplomat’s residence, the scope of diplomatic immunity heightens the difficulty of seeking redress in cases of trafficking for the purpose of domestic servitude.

An exclusive Rappler investigation compiled a database that revealed incidents dating from 1988 to 2021 where 208 migrant domestic workers in at least 18 countries reported hundreds incidents of trafficking and labor exploitation against diplomatic officials and international organization employees who had employed them.

Limited or restricted movement was also a common allegation. Many domestic workers claimed that their passports were confiscated or they were not allowed to leave the residence to attend worship services or seek medical aid.

From the 108 reports with details about the end of employment, 70 escaped from their employers.

Many of the escape stories mirror Espanto’s. An elaborate plan is set into motion after detailed planning over clandestine meetings or text messages. A discreet departure during ungodly hours. An informal network of individuals – usually labor rights groups or other migrants – is on alert to provide transportation, temporary shelter, and most of all, comfort.

Where escape is unplanned, a good samaritan often comes to the rescue.

In one case in the US, Virginia Carazani, a Bolivian domestic worker alleged that she received no wages from 2006-2008, the nearly three years that she worked for an official of the World Bank. Carazani was reportedly able to escape with the help of a good samaritan and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Carazani was awarded $1.1 million (P61.2 million) by default judgment, which records show mostly go unpaid.

According to the World Bank, since the 1999 Washington Post report that implicated World Bank employees in cases of domestic servitude, the Bank “took immediate action” to improve internal monitoring systems to protect domestic workers. This included, among others, a certified payroll for the worker through direct deposits as well as “periodic review and revision of code of conduct and contract to ensure fair and safe employment practices.”

The World Bank did not comment on individual cases.

“The fact that they have to flee, the fact that they have to escape is proof positive that they’ve been held in forced labor, that they’ve been held in a situation of human trafficking,” said Martina Vandenberg, president of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, a legal nonprofit that assists trafficking survivors in Washington, DC.

Seeing her work as domestic servitude for the first time

Espanto began working for the Saudi diplomat in 1998 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

When the diplomat was posted to the Netherlands, he brought Espanto along as part of his three-person domestic staff. When the two other employees left, Espanto suggested hiring Sheryl and Jon-Jon.

But that time, it had been seven years since Espanto had seen any of her seven children. She thought it would be an opportunity to be with at least two of them.

Jon-Jon, then 33, was the first to arrive in May 2004. Sheryl, 19 at the time, followed a few months later.

It was Jon-Jon who had first proposed their escape. He provided the brawn and muscle needed by the heavy housework. He was the all-around handyman who washed the cars and scrubbed the swimming pool tiles with a cleaning liquid that made his nose sting and his eyes water. On nights when there were diplomatic parties hosted at the residence, he helped his sister and mother.

At his breaking point, Jon-Jon asked his mother: “I never thought you could do this to us. How could you work for them for so long? They treat us like slaves.”

The question, wrapped with blame, landed like a slap of guilt. For the first time, through the eyes of her son, Espanto saw her work for what it really was: domestic servitude.

“I didn’t feel the hardship of my work when I was the only one working in Saudi. But when it came to seeing my children experiencing difficulty, crying and blaming me…Why did I do that to them? It was so painful,” said Espanto, her voice cracking at the onset of tears.

Agreeing to Jon-Jon’s plan to flee was a mother’s plea for forgiveness.

For three months after their escape, Espanto and her children were – as she calls it, “inampon” (adopted) – by the Filipino migrant community. The owner of the cargo shipping company stored their belongings and had them ready when they took the Espantos into their home. A tight group of trusted others took turns bringing them food.

Now undocumented migrants because their visa permits were tied to their employer, the Espantos learned to live under the radar. They depended on discrete referrals – no questions asked, payments made directly in cash – for odd jobs to get by.

“I have a huge debt of gratitude to the Filipino migrant community here,” said Espanto.

It is a debt that Espanto, now 70 years old, is on a crusade to repay.

From survivor to advocate

Espanto’s apartment, in a suburb south of the capital of Amsterdam, is crammed with left-behind objects and momentos.

Duffle bags filled with thick jackets and sweaters no longer needed for the warm Philippine climate peek out from behind the sofa. Boxes stuffed with notebooks, shoes, and even a toolbox with screwdrivers and pliers are stacked under the table.

It is the trail of migrant workers Espanto has welcomed into her home. Some seek counsel about complex labor laws. Some need a transit point before the long flight back to the Philippines. Those who escaped like Espanto did many years ago, need a place of safety and refuge.

News clippings featuring Espanto hang on one wall. On the table under it are the many medals and trophies she has received for her work as chairperson of Migrante-Netherlands (Den Haag chapter) and cultural mediator for Fairwork, a Dutch anti-trafficking NGO.

Today, Espanto is sharing a meal with two other migrant domestic workers, Recil and Jane*.

Recil worked for a Greek couple, both employed by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, for 16 years.

When she needed to renew her identification documents last year, she presented her bank statements showing a monthly salary of €1,370 (P84,063). The Dutch foreign ministry told her that under minimum wage laws as of 2022, she was entitled to €1,725 (P105,846).

The Netherlands has a nationally legislated minimum wage that is usually adjusted twice a year, first in January, and then in July.

Stunned, Recil confessed that her employers also deducted €250 (P15,340) “for board and lodging,” which she had to hand over to them in cash every month.

The meeting unleashed a chain of events. Recil confronted her employer, citing what the Dutch foreign ministry had told her. In panic, they asked Recil to sign a termination letter and leave within two weeks. The Dutch ministry also alerted the couple’s office about the suspected violation of national labor laws.

Over the course of her narration, Recil’s bubbly character turned from angry to sad. “It was so painful. There wasn’t even any recognition for all those years I served them,” she said.

Recil was 22 when she first started working for the couple. Now 38, she helped them raise their children. The eldest, whom Recil calls “‘yun dalaga ko” (my young lady), has just started university in the United Kingdom.

Another domestic worker, Jane*, shared a similar story.

Jane had escaped from her Qatari diplomat employer in December 2020 with the assistance of Espanto.

“My boss kept my ATM card. He would withdraw and give me €500 (P30,680) each month,” said Jane.

Her employer justified the deduction as payment for her accommodations and internet.

Jane showed Rappler screenshots of an ABN-AMRO bank statement in her name with regular monthly deposits made by the embassy of Qatar in the amount of €1,800 (P110,448) in compliance with 2020 wage laws.

However, there were transactions made after December 5, 2020 – the date Jane had fled. A deduction of €1 (P63.36) was posted on December 12, 2020, as payment to Vendor Washroom in Rotterdam, a paid public toilet facility.

The last deduction of €13.99 (P858.42) as payment to New York Pizza was posted on May 14, 2021.

Circumventing laws to underpay wages

The US State Department and other host governments around the world have implemented measures specifically “to address domestic servitude in diplomatic households.” One of them is to require that wages be directly deposited to a solo bank account in the domestic worker’s name or paid by check.

Other international organizations have a similar protocol in place. In an email, a spokesperson for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Headquarters in the US told Rappler, “Wages must be paid by the IMF staff member employing the domestic worker through an IMF-approved payroll payment and tax service provider to the domestic worker’s bank account.”

According to Martina Vandenberg, president of legal assistance nonprofit Human Trafficking Legal Center in Washington, DC, bank statements like that of Jane’s can be damning evidence.

“We had bank statements in one case where it was clear that the wife of the diplomat was buying UGG boots and gas for her car. You have a record of things that have been purchased that the domestic worker – who had no car and couldn’t leave the house and didn’t need any boots – was certainly not purchasing,” said Vandenberg.

In cases where salaries of domestic employees are paid for by the diplomat’s state, it also points to corruption.

“These diplomats who receive domestic workers stipends are not only engaging in human trafficking, they’re stealing from their own government by taking the stipend and keeping it for themselves,” said Vandenberg.

Pocketing worker wages

Rappler reviewed documents related to diplomats and consular officers from Qatar, the sending state of the diplomat Jane worked for to determine where the funds for domestic worker salaries come from.

A 2011 decision issued by the prime minister and foreign minister indicated that the salary and benefits of Qatari diplomats include “rent for the head of mission, including electrical bill, water, gas, and the wages of servants.”

A 2006 decree showed that an ambassador receives a monthly basic salary of about 20,000-25,000 Qatari Riyals (US$5,494-$6,868 | P305,850-P382,341). In addition, the official receives 20% of his/her salary as living expense allowance.

Officials at the level of minister or delegate who have been in service for more than five years, receive a periodic bonus released five times a year. On the average, the highest periodic bonus a minister can receive is 17,700 Qatari Riyals ($4,862.63 | P270,667)

The Qatari foreign ministry did not reply to Rappler’s emails requesting for comment.

Intersections of class and power

The Rappler database of allegations made against diplomats and employees of international organizations also showed another pattern.

The countries with the most number of implicated officials were those where there is either a culture of employing domestic staff enabled by low wages and a highly stratified society or a lack of laws protecting domestic workers.

Nearly half of the top 10 erring sending states have the kafala system in place to regulate employer-employee relations. International human rights watchdogs have consistently called for an end to this system because the excessive power and control it gives employers traps migrant workers in conditions that are tantamount to slavery.

Outside of these countries, Asian and African nations dominated the list of sending states with erring diplomats. For these countries, there were 14 incidents where the domestic worker and the diplomat were of the same nationality.

“This is part of a broader issue where officials come from a context where domestic workers are already undervalued and there is a serious lack of rights for domestic workers. They are already treated badly in these countries,” said Rothna Begum, Human Rights Watch senior researcher for women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa.

“In their mind, the move to another country doesn’t matter. You still work in their home,” said Begum. (To be continued) – with the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism and Gerald John Guillermo/Rappler.com

NEXT: How diplomats who traffick, exploit domestic workers get away

*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the worker
US$1 = P55.67
€1 = P61.36

John Pilger Silencing the lambs:: How propaganda works

by John Pilger

August 20/21, 2023 – Information Clearing House – In the 1970s, I met one of Hitler’s leading propagandists, Leni Riefenstahl, whose epic films glorified the Nazis. We happened to be staying at the same lodge in Kenya, where she was on a photography assignment, having escaped the fate of other friends of the Führer.

She told me that the “patriotic messages” of her films were dependent not on “orders from above” but on what she called the “submissive void” of the German public.

Did that include the liberal, educated bourgeoisie? I asked. “Yes, especially them,” she said.

I think of this as I look around at the propaganda now consuming Western societies.

Of course, we are very different from Germany in the 1930s. We live in information societies. We are globalists. We have never been more aware, more in touch and better connected.

Are we? Or do we live in a media society where brainwashing is insidious and relentless, and perception is filtered according to the needs and lies of state and corporate power?

The United States dominates the Western world’s media. All but one of the top ten media companies is based in North America. The internet and social media — Google, Twitter, Facebook — are mostly American-owned and controlled.

In my lifetime, the United States has overthrown or attempted to overthrow more than 50 governments, mostly democracies. It has interfered in democratic elections in 30 countries. It has dropped bombs on the people of 30 countries, most of them poor and defenceless. It has attempted to murder the leaders of 50 countries. It has fought to suppress liberation movements in 20 countries.

The extent and scale of this carnage are largely unreported, and unrecognised; and those responsible continue to dominate Anglo-American political life.

In the years before he died in 2008, the playwright Harold Pinter made two extraordinary speeches, which broke a silence.

“US foreign policy,” he said, is “best defined as follows: kiss my arse or I’ll kick your head in. It is as simple and as crude as that. What is interesting about it is that it’s so incredibly successful. It possesses the structures of disinformation, use of rhetoric, distortion of language, which are very persuasive, but are actually a pack of lies. It is very successful propaganda. They have the money, they have the technology, they have all the means to get away with it, and they do.”

In accepting the Nobel prize for literature, Pinter said this: “The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.”

Pinter was a friend of mine and possibly the last great political sage — that is, before dissenting politics were gentrified. I asked him if the “hypnosis” he referred to was the “submissive void” described by Leni Riefenstahl.

“It’s the same,” he replied. “It means the brainwashing is so thorough we are programmed to swallow a pack of lies. If we don’t recognise propaganda, we may accept it as normal and believe it. That’s the submissive void.”

In our systems of corporate democracy, war is an economic necessity, the perfect marriage of public subsidy and private profit: socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor. The day after 9/11 the stock prices of the war industry soared. More bloodshed was coming, which is great for business.

Today, the most profitable wars have their own brand. They are called “forever wars”: Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and now Ukraine. All are based on a pack of lies.

Iraq is the most infamous, with its weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist. Nato’s destruction of Libya in 2011 was justified by a massacre in Benghazi that didn’t happen. Afghanistan was a convenient revenge war for 9/11, which had nothing to do with the people of Afghanistan.

Today, the news from Afghanistan is how evil the Taliban are — not that President Joe Biden’s theft of $7-billion of the country’s bank reserves is causing widespread suffering. Recently, National Public Radio in Washington devoted two hours to Afghanistan — and 30 seconds to its starving people.

At its summit in Madrid in June, Nato, which is controlled by the United States, adopted a strategy document that militarises the European continent and escalates the prospect of war with Russia and China. It proposes ‘multi-domain warfighting against nuclear-armed peer-competitors’. In other words, nuclear war.

It says: “Nato’s enlargement has been a historic success.”

I read that in disbelief.

A measure of this “historic success” is the war in Ukraine, news of which is mostly not news, but a one-sided litany of jingoism, distortion, and omission. I have reported a number of wars and have never known such blanket propaganda.

In February, Russia invaded Ukraine as a response to almost eight years of killing and criminal destruction in the Russian-speaking region of Donbass on their border.

In 2014, the United States sponsored a coup in Kyiv that got rid of Ukraine’s democratically elected, Russian-friendly president and installed a successor who the Americans made clear was their man.

In recent years, American “defender” missiles have been installed in eastern Europe, Poland, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic, almost certainly aimed at Russia, accompanied by false assurances all the way back to James Baker’s “promise” to Gorbachev in February 1990 that Nato would never expand beyond Germany.

Ukraine is the frontline. Nato has effectively reached the very borderland through which Hitler’s army stormed in 1941, leaving more than 23-million people dead in the Soviet Union.

Last December, Russia proposed a far-reaching security plan for Europe. This was dismissed, derided or suppressed in the Western media. Who read its step-by-step proposals? On 24 February, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy threatened to develop nuclear weapons unless America armed and protected Ukraine. This was the final straw.

On the same day, Russia invaded — according to the Western media, an unprovoked act of congenital infamy. The history, the lies, the peace proposals, the solemn agreements on Donbass at Minsk counted for nothing.

On 25 April, the US defence secretary, General Lloyd Austin, flew into Kyiv and confirmed that America’s aim was to destroy the Russian Federation — the word he used was “weaken”. America had got the war it wanted, waged by an American bankrolled and armed proxy and expendable pawn.

Almost none of this was explained to Western audiences.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is wanton and inexcusable. It is a crime to invade a sovereign country. There are no “buts” — except one.

When did the present war in Ukraine begin and who started it? According to the United Nations, between 2014 and this year, some 14 000 people have been killed in the Kyiv regime’s civil war on the Donbass. Many of the attacks were carried out by neo-Nazis.

Watch an ITV news report from May 2014, by the veteran reporter James Mates, who is shelled, along with civilians in the city of Mariupol, by Ukraine’s Azov (neo-Nazi) battalion.

In the same month, dozens of Russian-speaking people were burned alive or suffocated in a trade union building in Odessa besieged by fascist thugs, the followers of the Nazi collaborator and anti-Semitic fanatic Stephen Bandera. The New York Times called the thugs “nationalists.”

“The historic mission of our nation in this critical moment,” said Andreiy Biletsky, founder of the Azov Battalion, “is to lead the white races of the world in a final crusade for their survival, a crusade against the Semite-led Untermenschen.”

Since February, a campaign of self-appointed “news monitors” (mostly funded by the Americans and British with links to governments) have sought to maintain the absurdity that Ukraine’s neo-Nazis don’t exist.

Airbrushing, a term once associated with Stalin’s purges, has become a tool of mainstream journalism.

In less than a decade, a “good” China has been airbrushed and a “bad” China has replaced it: from the world’s workshop to a budding new Satan.

Much of this propaganda originates in the US, and is transmitted through proxies and “think tanks,” such as the notorious Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the voice of the arms industry, and by zealous journalists such as Peter Hartcher of the Sydney Morning Herald, who labelled those spreading Chinese influence as “rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows” and called for these “pests” to be “eradicated.”

News about China in the West is almost entirely about the threat from Beijing. Airbrushed are the 400 American military bases that surround most of China, an armed necklace that reaches from Australia to the Pacific and Southeast Asia, Japan and Korea. The Japanese island of Okinawa and the Korean island of Jeju are loaded guns aimed point-blank at the industrial heart of China. A Pentagon official described this as a “noose.”

Palestine has been misreported for as long as I can remember. To the BBC, there is the “conflict” of “two narratives.” The longest, most brutal, lawless military occupation in modern times is unmentionable.

The stricken people of Yemen barely exist. They are media unpeople. While the Saudis rain down their American cluster bombs with British advisers working alongside the Saudi targeting officers, more than half a million children face starvation.

This brainwashing by omission has a long history. The slaughter of World War I was suppressed by reporters who were knighted for their compliance and confessed in their memoirs. In 1917, the editor of the Manchester Guardian, CP Scott, confided to Prime Minister Lloyd George: “If people really knew [the truth], the war would be stopped tomorrow, but they don’t know and can’t know.”

The refusal to see people and events as those in other countries see them is a media virus in the West, as debilitating as Covid. It is as if we see the world through a one-way mirror, in which “we” are moral and benign and “they” are not. It is a profoundly imperial view.

The history that is a living presence in China and Russia is rarely explained and rarely understood. Vladimir Putin is Adolf Hitler. Xi Jinping is Fu Man Chu. Epic achievements, such as the eradication of abject poverty in China, are barely known. How perverse and squalid this is.

When will we allow ourselves to understand? Training journalists factory-style is not the answer. Neither is the wondrous digital tool, which is a means, not an end, like the one-finger typewriter and the linotype machine.

In recent years, some of the best journalists have been eased out of the mainstream. “Defenestrated” is the word used. The spaces once open to mavericks, to journalists who went against the grain, truth-tellers, have closed.

The case of Julian Assange is the most shocking. When Assange and WikiLeaks could win readers and prizes for the Guardian, the New York Times and other self-important “papers of record,” he was celebrated.

When the dark state objected and demanded the destruction of hard drives and the assassination of Assange’s character, he was made a public enemy. Then vice-president Biden called him a “hi-tech terrorist”. Hillary Clinton asked, “Can’t we just drone this guy?”

The ensuing campaign of abuse and vilification against Assange — the UN Rapporteur on Torture called it “mobbing” — brought the liberal press to its lowest ebb. We know who they are. I think of them as collaborators: as Vichy journalists.

When will real journalists stand up? An inspirational samizdat already exists on the internet: Consortium News, founded by the great reporter Robert Parry, Max Blumenthal’s Grayzone, Mint Press News, Media Lens, Declassified UK, Alborada, Electronic Intifada, WSWS, ZNet, ICH, CounterPunch, Independent Australia, Globetrotter, the work of Chris Hedges, Patrick Lawrence, Jonathan Cook, Diana Johnstone, Caitlin Johnstone and others who will forgive me for not mentioning them here.

And when will writers stand up, as they did against the rise of fascism in the 1930s? When will filmmakers stand up, as they did against the Cold War in the 1940s? When will satirists stand up, as they did a generation ago?

Having soaked for 82 years in a deep bath of righteousness that is the official version of the last world war, isn’t it time those who are meant to keep the record straight declared their independence and decoded the propaganda? The urgency is greater than ever.

JohnPilger is an Australian journalist, writer, scholar, and documentary filmmaker. He has mainly been based in Britain since 1962. He was also visiting professor at Cornell University in New York.#

A Love Remains

GMA News Online

Trigger warning: This article contains disturbing content some may find upsetting.

IT WAS A FEW MINUTES BEFORE MIDNIGHT and they all sat in silence inside the unmarked van, too stunned to speak. The three-vehicle convoy was parked along the curve of a narrow road under the stillness of an Acacia tree. Only a sliver of moon hung in the sky and it was dark, save for an occasional streak from passing cars and the light spilling from the large cabinet sign of a nearby convenience store. That shop had closed for the night and six people were slumped on the pavement there, two of them sleeping. Their dirty boots, worn trousers, and threadbare long sleeved t-shirts hinted that they were working men, on a break from a late night construction job and sheltering in this oasis of light.

The stakeout had begun an hour and a half before. Colonel Sheila Portento was sitting behind the driver, two-way radio on her lap. Two more undercover agents were beside her, hunched over a laptop, the glow of the screen cold on their faces. They were engaging a middle-aged woman whom they had been tracking for some time, the mother of two young children. She lived in a congested community in the eastern part of Metro Manila, not far from where this convoy of police vehicles was now lined up.

The conversation meandered. The hour grew late. A steady stream of soft rock music played at low volume on the radio. The air conditioning was cool. A policeman in a white operation vest, rifle between his legs, had already fallen asleep, his crew-cropped head bent forward at an awkward angle.

Suddenly, a stabbing, three-tone melody broke the fragile peace. The last note seemed to linger in the air, stirring a deep sense of dread against the silence that followed. The long conversation with the woman had evidently gotten somewhere, because now, she was making a video call.

They turned off the radio. An agent shifted in his seat. Then, without a word or ceremony, there she was, enveloped in a strange blue light, fully revealed. And so was her 10-year old daughter.

“Damn,” Portento murmured, finally regaining her composure. She clutched her handheld radio and swiftly gave orders to the team. There was no time to lose.

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Operation in Pateros to rescue Luz and Grace.

In the darkest corners of cyberspace, a high-stakes game of cat and mouse is playing out away from the public eye. The ever increasing reach and deep anonymity offered by the internet has made it a battleground for a bewildering crime: the Online Sexual Exploitation of Children. OSEC is a rising transnational problem, one that finds the Philippines at its nexus.

Although early data on OSEC cases is scarce, it has been around almost as long as the ascent of Web 2.0, the participatory evolution of the internet that gave rise to social media and user-generated content. In the past two decades, media coverage of OSEC cases, once thought to be confined to the fringes, has been increasing in frequency. Now, it makes the evening news a few times each year, featuring sensational raids and the gut-wrenching rescue of wide-eyed children, some of them no older than infants.

In 2015, an even darker side of OSEC broke into the public consciousness in a big way. Peter Gerard Scully, an Australian national who was living in the Philippines, was arrested in the southern island of Mindanao after months on the run. Scully was suspected of being behind the production and sale of a deeply disturbing video that featured an 18-month old girl, hung upside down by the legs and subjected to rape, abuse, and torture. The footage, dubbed “Daisy’s Destruction,” achieved legendary status on the dark web before bubbling to the surface and appearing in pockets of the open internet.

The video was an example of an extreme form of abuse called “hurtcore,” showcasing the suffering, humiliation and torment of young children in particular. It is filmed in secret, predominantly in developing countries like the Philippines, and sold at a premium to pedophiles around the world. The material attributed to Scully was so depraved that according to some investigators assigned to the case, the images still haunt them to this day.

“I remember standing up [from the computer] and sobbing uncontrollably when I saw it,” lawyer Janet Francisco said. “It was as if I could feel the pain of the little girl as horrific things were being done to her.”

Francisco now heads the Anti-Human Trafficking Division of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI-AHTRAD), one of the teams that led an international effort to find Scully and bring him to justice. She says policing the dark web, a hidden collective of websites that is only accessible using special software, is a daunting task.

“In the dark web, you can maintain anonymity and become untraceable,” Francisco explained.

Francisco said their first breakthrough in the Scully case came when the Dutch police arrested a man in the Netherlands on charges of child exploitation in 2014. They obtained hurtcore videos from him showing the torture of eight girls by adult females and a white male. The abusers’ faces were hidden, but the footage contained an important clue: one of the women spoke in Visayan, a language used in many parts of Central and Southern Philippines.

While the NBI investigated, the incredible courage of two of Scully’s young victims also hastened his downfall. Scully had been living in Mindanao since 2011, moving from province to province. In Cagayan De Oro, he met Carme Anne Alvarez, a former victim of child sexual exploitation herself, who Scully groomed to be his girlfriend and accomplice.

On Scully’s instigation, Alvarez enticed two street children, cousins aged 10 and 11, into a rented home in the western part of the city. There, the girls were tied up, kept on a leash, molested, and forced to perform sexual acts in front of a camera. They were also made to dig a hole in the basement which they believed would be their own grave.

“I don’t even want to say what Scully forced them to do,” Police Executive Master Sergeant Maricel Ubaub, one of the officers assigned to the case, said. “It’s so vile. Every time they were abused, the girls said they would rush to the bathroom to throw up.”

After a week of captivity, the children planned their escape. Whenever Scully and Alvarez left the house, they would lock up the cousins in a room. One day, the girls stuffed some paper into the hole of the door striker, keeping the latch disengaged when the door was pushed closed. Then they sneaked out, scaled a portion of the wall next to a papaya tree, and ran straight to the local market where their parents worked.

Police later arrested Alvarez, but Scully was able to escape.

The sheer cruelty of Scully left an indelible impression on Ubaub, a veteran who has handled many cases of child sexual abuse before. When we met, she wore a large, frumpy-looking police cap with her uniform, which gave her a diligent and affable appearance. She gazed cautiously at the house where it all went down, a silent place with fading white walls and a red, galvanized iron roof. Ubaub, a mother herself, momentarily lost composure, hiding her face behind a case folder.

“I don’t show this to the children, but sometimes when I talk to them, I have to take a moment, turn away and cry,” Ubaub said, wiping tears from her eyes. “It’s really hard.”

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Authorities arrest a mother and her live-in partner for the Online Sexual Exploitation of Children.

Pursuing OSEC violators can be especially difficult because of the involvement of the children’s families. In cellphone footage shot in early 2021, Portento and her team from the Philippine National Police Women and Children Protection Center (WCPC) were shown swooping down upon a low-income neighborhood in Southern Metro Manila. Wearing full personal protective equipment due to a COVID surge at the time, she went straight for a 9-month old baby in a crib, swaddled in blankets. Portento cradled the child in her arms and immediately brought her to a waiting van.

As police arrested the child’s mother, the woman’s expression changed from shock, nervous denial, panic, then finally, despair. She looked on, slack-jawed, while an officer recited her Miranda rights. The scene unfolded in front of a Hello Kitty curtain emblazoned with pink hearts.

In all, nine victims, including seven minors, were rescued from the house. They embraced each other and whimpered in the back of the van.

“As much as possible, the first opportunity that we can rescue the children, we will do it,” Portento said. “Because they have no one else to turn to.”

Based on a study by the global non-government organization International Justice Mission (IJM) released in 2020, OSEC victims are very young and are abused for a long time. The median age is 11-years old, while the average duration of abuse is 2 years. A majority of the victims, 86%, are girls.

OSEC is considered a family-based crime. A staggering 41% of traffickers are the biological parents of the victim, while 42% are other relatives. This makes it more difficult to detect and prosecute perpetrators. Children frequently do not comprehend the abuse they suffer at the hands of loved ones, much less find the courage or opportunity to report to authorities.

Crucially, even though some OSEC transactions take place over the dark web, the IJM noted that most deals were negotiated on the open internet, reducing the obstacles to effective law enforcement.

Portento takes her job very seriously, almost making it sound like a personal mission. With her neat, side-parted ponytail and square, rimless glasses, the officer gives the impression of a sensitive but undramatic leader.

“I’m also a mother, so I’m very passionate about this job,” Portento said. “If there’s someone who should protect the children, it should be me. It’s sickening that the people who are supposed to be their first layer of protection are actually their abusers.”

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Colonel Sheila Portento and her team from the PNP Women and Children Protection Center after a successful midnight operation in Metro Manila.

To strengthen global policing efforts against OSEC, international and Philippine law enforcement agencies formed the Philippine Internet Crimes Against Children Center in 2019. Among its members are the WCPC, IJM, NBI-AHTRAD, Australian Federal Police, U.K. National Crime Agency, and the National Police of the Netherlands.

Since its inauguration, the Philippines saw a dramatic increase in OSEC crackdowns. Authorities rescued 12 victims in 2015, but in the three years since PICACC’s inauguration, the number of individuals rescued per year has risen fourteen-fold.

Indeed, it was information from the Australian police that led Portento’s team to the eastern margins of Metro Manila, setting a trap in the dark. When an Australian national was caught for possession of Child Sexual Exploitation Material (CSEM), some of the images were traced back to a woman in the Philippines. The WCPC put her under surveillance, and confirmed that she was using her daughters “Luz,” 6-years old, and “Grace,” 10-years old, to produce and sell sexually explicit material.

It was now a race against time. The longer the children stay with their mother, the more likely they would be abused again. But the woman had been cautious, hiding her whereabouts and switching online accounts regularly. When the pandemic struck, the investigation ground to a halt. Months went by without contact with the suspect.

Then, after almost two years of trying, authorities caught a break. The woman slipped up, revealing her precise location at last. That very evening, the police hatched an entrapment operation.

Inside the cool, unlit van, an undercover agent engaged the suspect for hours. Soon, she set her price: 2000 pesos (40 USD) for a live show, an amount just shy of four days minimum wage in the city. The officer quickly wired her the money.

“She has to appear on camera, so we can be sure that she’s there right now,” he explained.

Her call came through. The silence around us deepened. At first, the woman appeared on screen alone.

“I think she just summoned the child,” the agent whispered.

She did. A moment later, they were both on camera, exposed, in a cramped space bathed in an odd, almost extraterrestrial blue light.

This was all the evidence the team needed.

“All units proceed now,” Portento commanded on the radio.

The convoy moved fast through winding roads. Sirens and emergency lights stayed off. A man on a bicycle sensed the urgency and quickly got out of the way. Then, as we turned a corner, the sliding door of our van flew open, and officers with rifles leapt into action. The one with the crew-cropped hair, now wide-awake, led the way into a narrow alley, which we all entered single file.

Suddenly, somewhere ahead, I heard the panicked screams of a mother.

“No! Don’t take my baby!”

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He lay face down on the concrete floor, officers in plain clothes surrounding him. It’s 2015, and the NBI has finally caught up with Peter Scully in a rented house in Malaybalay, Bukidnon, a two-hour drive from Cagayan De Oro. He did not resist arrest.

Liezl Margallo, another girlfriend and accomplice of Scully who was intercepted by authorities at a domestic airport, provided the information that led to the capture of the Australian fugitive. A week later, with Margallo’s cooperation, agents made another gruesome discovery, this time in Surigao, another city in Mindanao.

In one of their previously rented houses, a 12-year old girl was found folded, stuffed and buried in concrete beneath a white-tiled kitchen floor. She was one of the children featured in Scully’s hurtcore videos, raped and tortured by this father of two before being murdered. A forensic team painstakingly gathered her skeletal remains, giving her the care and dignity she was denied in life.

In news footage following his arrest, Scully showed no emotion, and even flashed a tiny smirk as his mugshots were taken. But he lowered his head a little when he spoke with a reporter, and claimed that he was filled with regret for what he had done. “I have done nothing but look into myself and write everything down, day by day, what has influenced this,” he said.

Francisco, the agent who hounded Scully and cracked the case, disagreed. “I didn’t see any remorse in him,” she said. “He didn’t even admit to his crimes.”

And those crimes were plenty. Scully was charged with several counts of rape with assault, human trafficking, attempted human trafficking, syndicated child pornography, child abuse, and photo and video voyeurism. In all, more than 60 cases were filed against him for the abuse of dozens of children.

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Sadly, OSEC cases in the Philippines have only increased since Scully’s arrest in 2015. According to IJM, the number of IP addresses (a unique string of characters that identifies a computer) used for internet-based child sexual exploitation more than tripled between 2014 and 2017. In addition, the country received more than eight times as many OSEC case referrals from international law enforcement agencies compared to other global hotspots.

It’s easy to understand why OSEC is prevalent in a nation struggling with perennial poverty. Most victims come from poor families because the desperate are easy prey.

But other factors play a key role too. Advancements in technology have made smartphones and broadband internet more accessible than ever; consequently, OSEC cases that were previously confined to urban communities have also spread to rural ones. Money exchange has also grown simpler as a result of electronic banking, e-wallets, and other digital remittance services.

Because of our English proficiency and position as the social media capital of the world, thanks in part to the outgoing nature of many Filipinos, we are also more vulnerable to foreign predators —simply because we are accessible to them.

Other factors are less established. Atty. Kathleen Piccio, a lawyer for IJM who represents survivors in court, brings up what she calls a “breakdown of morals” in trying to explain the phenomenon.

“Poverty may explain but can never justify these crimes,” she said. “There are a lot of poor families, the poorest of the poor in fact, who love their children and could never ever subject them to this kind of abuse.”

Meanwhile, authorities in Cagayan De Oro observed a spike in what they call self-generated Child Sexual Exploitation Material. As more minors use the internet, more become exposed to sexual grooming and other forms of online exploitation. Digital pimps, some of them underaged themselves, are luring children to take sexually explicit images to sell online.

Worse, in some cases, the incentive seems to extend beyond the demands of survival. Today, there is growing pressure on children to project a certain affluence, a hyper materialistic lifestyle often depicted in the social media they consume.

“We observed this for children around 12 years old and above, they already know what they’re doing, what this is all about,” social worker Honey Jane Tulang said. “Some of the minors we interviewed said they’re saving up to buy the latest cellphone or handbag. And they think it doesn’t harm them, because it’s just nude pictures anyway.”

Certainly, these aren’t just nude pictures. Children struggle to grasp the long term social and pathogenic consequences of generating and selling explicit sexual content. There is plenty of evidence that sexualized relationships between adults and children are always one-sided, exploitative, and wounding. We’ve known this for a long time too. In the 1933 paper “Confusion of Tongues Between Adults and the Child—The Language of Tenderness and of Passion,” Hungarian psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi warned that children’s “personalities are not sufficiently consolidated in order to be able to protest.” He explains that they will “subordinate themselves like automata,” and become “completely oblivious” to their needs, and ultimately “identify themselves with the aggressor.”

This is one of the reasons why the term “child pornography,” even though it is more familiar to the lay public and is still used in legal settings, has fallen out of favor with child rights advocates. Pornography is allowed in some countries and is open to consenting adults. But minors are simply incapable of granting true consent in these situations. Thus, referring to CSEM as pornography can make the crime seem less harmful to children.

“We try to tell them that it’s not ok, because these images would live forever on the internet,” Tulang said. “But it doesn’t seem to deter them, because it seems so rewarding.”

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An OSEC survivor in Cebu. 

For many OSEC victims, it is the anguish of being abused by those dearest to them that will haunt them for the rest of their life.

We arrived at a squat, concrete house a little past midnight. A solitary palmera grew in a planter against the outside wall, while a jumble of rubber flip-flops surrounded the main door, two pairs conspicuously tiny. A few blocks away, a barking dog protested the hour.

The agents entered without knocking. One officer immediately carried Luz, who started to cry hysterically. They went outside and disappeared into the alley. Meanwhile, the older Grace got dressed. Social workers enshrouded her head with a large, colorful scarf and began to lead her to the door. But she stopped midway, and in the melodic, rising inflection of a child, asked about her mother and sister.

“Can mama come with me?” She pleaded. “Where is my sister?”

Your mama is just putting on some clothes, an officer assured her, wear your slippers. Then they led her out into the night as well.

I came up two steps and entered a cramped space lit by a harsh, LED bulb overhead. The officers had begun collecting evidence. Laid out on a pink, faux leather sofa were four cell phones, a laptop, an instant camera, and a sex toy. The rice cooker had been used recently, its transparent lid still opaque with condensing steam. A framed picture of the woman, her partner, and her two kids smiling on the beach was propped up on a stack of plastic shoe boxes.

This was a home. But one corner of it was reserved for something sinister. Inside the bathroom, a special bulb had been fixed in one of two light sockets. It now glowed a familiar shade of blue. Here, where they showered, washed their clothes, and brushed their teeth, the woman allegedly trafficked her children.

I stepped into the last room separated by a flimsy curtain, where the mom and her partner sat handcuffed on the edge of the bed, heads down and faces covered. I knelt down beside them. “What happened here?” I asked. “We were just hanging around,” the woman said softly. “How did this happen?” I tried again. They had nothing more to say. The woman began to sob.

It was a major accomplishment for Portento and her team, but at that moment, one couldn’t tell by their expressions. “[I have] mixed emotions,” Portento explained. “I’m sad that we’re taking the children away from their mother. But I’m also happy with the positive result.”

As her agents mopped up, Portento stood to one side of the room and seemed to make herself as small as she could.

“Hearing the children cry like that, that’s what haunts me at night,” she said. “I know I need to rescue them, but at this point I can’t make them understand that this is what’s best for them.”

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Rancho ni Cristo in Cebu is one of the few OSEC-specific shelters in the country.

Rescuing children from harm is only the first step in what can be a long road to recovery. Because relatives are frequently to blame for their abuse, OSEC survivors must be separated from them in the meantime. Children need a safe place and a compassionate environment while they work through conflicting and difficult emotions in the wake of their trauma.

In the province of Cebu in Central Philippines, another OSEC hotspot in the country, one organization focuses on the aftercare of survivors. CURE Foundation operates a shelter called Rancho ni Cristo in a rural and relatively secluded area of the province. The facility, which sits on top of a hill surrounded by nature, houses over thirty girls at any given time. Here, they live, play, study, and attend regular counseling sessions with professionals.

“We designed this place to be a home away from home, or be a home if you’ve never experienced what home feels like,” Bart Van Oost, Managing Director of CURE, explained. “Because of their backgrounds, some of [these children] have never been in a loving family.”

Van Oost, a Dutch national, moved to Cebu with his Filipino-American wife Jolene in 2015. He left a successful banking career in Belgium to work full-time with the organization after being struck by the plight of disadvantaged children here. “I just wanted to do more than send a regular check,” Van Oost said. Today, Rancho is one of the few OSEC-specific shelters in the country.

The specialization is helpful because of the unique burden of OSEC survivors, whom the Foundation refers to as their “clients.” One of them is “Precious,” an amiable 14-year old who loves to dance. I met her in their Zumba class, moving with playful abandon to a K-Pop ditty. Her laughter carried through the room. It may have looked effortless then, but this was a hard fought happiness. Because beneath her sunny exterior lay a harrowing story of abuse.

Precious’ father died when she was very young, leaving their family struggling to survive. Soon, she noticed that her mother was secretly taking pictures of her, often in sexually suggestive situations. She later learned that the photos were being sent to a boyfriend abroad.

Confused and terrified, the girl said nothing. But when the boyfriend eventually visited the Philippines, her own mother lured Precious to a hotel where the man was staying. There, curled up in bed, she was sexually assaulted. The girl hit rock bottom. She mustered the courage to ask help from a friend, who then alerted the authorities.

We now sat side by side, facing opposite directions on a playground swing. Although soft-spoken, Precious expressed herself in a clear and earnest manner, as if she felt a duty to share her story to the world. She punctuated many of her sentences with a bright smile that made her eyes disappear into squints.

“I’m happy here. They’ve helped us a lot, mentally and spiritually,” Precious said. “I feel a sense of inner peace.”

The girl is not here to hide from the world, however. She couldn’t, even if she wanted to. Precious’ mother is now in jail, facing multiple cases. And Precious is testifying against her. “I’m not doing this because I hate her.” Precious said. “I’ve already forgiven my mother, but justice must be served, for me and for her.”

Van Oost acknowledged that pursuing justice can be tremendously difficult for survivors because of a love that often remains between the children and their abusers. “It’s very challenging, because no matter what, it’s still their family involved,” Van Oost explained. “Most [children] say that yes, what my family member did was wrong, but I also have a lot of good memories with them. So it’s not black and white.”

Beyond justice, the essential goal of survivors is to return to society happy, healthy, and ready to live the rest of their lives to the fullest. To this end, the Foundation focuses on giving their clients a good education, a base from which to pursue careers later in life. Although children must remain in the shelter while they heal and recover, they also plan regular visits to trusted relatives in their hometowns whenever possible. This way, a loving family will be waiting for them when they ultimately leave the facility.

“Most of them have lots of potential,” Van Oost said. “We try to teach them to dream and believe.”

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Precious in class.

In November 2022, Scully was convicted and sentenced to 129 years in prison for an avalanche of human trafficking, rape, and child abuse cases. This was on top of the life sentence he received in a previous conviction in 2018. Alvarez and Margallo, his accomplices, are also serving life terms for their roles in the crimes.

Meanwhile, social workers say that Luz and Grace are doing well in foster care two years after their rescue. The younger Luz seems to have a talent for words, winning a slogan-making contest in class. Grace, her protective big sister, is ranked second in her batch in math. The case against their mother and live-in partner continues.

When we met a year ago, Precious said she was not ready to leave their beloved shelter on a hill in Cebu, a place she considers home. Nevertheless, the girl already had big dreams for the future.

“I want to be a lawyer,” she said sheepishly. “I want to defend children with the same experience as me.”

It’s a bittersweet sentiment. Here was a 14-year old girl who went through unspeakable trauma, and now, barely recovered, is already thinking of helping others like her. And there are still others like her out there: frightened, distraught, and desperately searching for answers.

Precious had something to say to them.

“There are people who will help,” she said. “It will get better.”

Her eyes disappeared when she smiled.

On the Passing of Secretary Toots Ople

Statement, Migrante International

On the Passing of Secretary Toots Ople

22 August 2023

Migrante-International expresses its deepest condolences with the family, friends and colleagues of Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) Secretary Susan “Toots” Ople in the wake of news about her sudden passing.

Secretary Toots has a long and respectable record of NGO work and advocacy for migrant workers and all migrant Filipinos. While we have criticisms of her stint as DMW secretary and of the DMW, she did not close lines of communication with Migrante-International.

Recognizing that it is productive for the government to listen to grassroots organizations, families, and advocates of migrants, she engaged in dialogue on concrete measures to alleviate the plight of OFWs and migrant Filipinos. She would sometimes address our criticisms but without naming us and without the hostility shown by many government officials.

Her replacement, whoever s/he is, will surely have big shoes to fill.

Migrante-Den Haag celebrates 13th founding year, vows to fight modern-day slavery

The Den Haag chapter of Migrante-Netherlands held its second general assembly and celebrated its 13th founding anniversary last 20 August in The Hague, The Netherlands. With the theme ‘Migrant workers resist trafficking, abuse, discrimination and all forms of oppression!’ Filipino migrants gathered at the Kurdish Cultural Center in The Hague to look back at more than a decade of struggle for the rights and welfare of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) and undocumented migrants.

“They took our passports. We were like their prisoners. I just sleep, wake up, work and then wake up, and work again,” said Corazon Espanto, outgoing chairperson of Migrante Den Haag when she recounted her experience as a victim of human trafficking between 2003 to 2008. In 2004, Cora was joined by her son and daughter working in a Saudi diplomat’s residential house in the Netherlands.

“I thought I was so lucky that I had my children with me. Working together, helping each other. But it’s not, because we worked so hard. I start work at 5:30 in the morning and would stop working at 2:30 the next morning,” Espanto recalled.

Espanto, together with her son and daughter escaped in July 2008 with the help of other Filipino migrants. Soon after, the Den Haag chapter of Migrante Netherlands was established with Espanto being elected as its founding chairperson.

“After we escaped, I was hiding because I was afraid if my former employer found out. Migrante was the one who helped me tell my story. I appreciate what they did to my family. So now, I am doing it for other victims of human trafficking,” she added.

The chapter reviewed major campaigns it has worked on in the past including the rescue of Filipina human trafficking victims, au pairs, and other undocumented Filipinos as well as the campaign against the Philippine government’s Labor Export Policy and urgent relief operations during the pandemic.

The assembly also reaffirmed the unity of members to fight modern-day slavery and elected a new set of officers.

Veteran activist Araullo files P2-million damage suit vs red-taggers

By: Krixia Subingsubing – Reporter / @KrixiasINQ

Philippine Daily Inquirer / July 20, 2023

MANILA, Philippines — Activist and former martial law detainee Carol Pagaduan Araullo is seeking P2 million in damages as she sued former anti-insurgency task force spokesperson Lorraine Badoy and confessed communist rebel Jeffrey Celiz for “their incessant and wanton red-tagging” that targeted her and her organization on their TV program and on social media.

Araullo, the chair emeritus of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), filed a civil complaint on Wednesday at the Quezon City Prosecutor’s Office, accusing Badoy and Celiz of abusing freedom of speech as hosts of the show “Laban Para sa Bayan” on Sonshine Media Network Inc., a company owned by controversial televangelist Apollo Quiboloy.

She cited at least six instances since July 2021 where Badoy allegedly tagged her without basis as a terrorist and a member of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) whose armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), had been waging a Maoist insurgency since the 1970s.

As to Celiz, he allegedly named Araullo as a leader of the CPP’s political arm, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), and thus covered by the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, according to the complaint.

In several episodes of their show, the two Laban hosts described Araullo as “a top recruiter for the CPP-NPA while posing as a human rights defender,” it added.

Son not spared

They also referred to her son, broadcast journalist Atom Araullo, as the “son of a CPP central committee member” and challenged him to “talk about the crimes that your mother enabled to protect the CPP-NPA-NDF, where your mother is an urban operative.”

In her 21-page complaint, Araullo said the respondents “crossed the line by repeatedly committing abuses in the exercise of their right (to freedom of speech and expression).”

“What is clear is this: Defendants have no right to speak falsely or maliciously of other persons. The constitutional right of freedom of expression may not be availed of to broadcast lies or half-truths, insult others, destroy their name or reputation or bring them into disrepute,” she said.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Araullo said the persistent red-tagging had also taken a toll on her mental and physical health.

She spoke of having sleepless nights because of the social media comments generated by the accusations, maligning both her and Atom.

At one point, the chairperson of her barangay warned her that she was being kept under surveillance by security forces.

“So while I think myself to be a steadfast person — I endured martial law as a political prisoner — I cannot deny that these took a toll on me: I had to take security measures in my home and I have to warn my family members about the risks they face when they are with me.”

Need to ‘teach lesson’

She said she initially thought of just ignoring Badoy and Celiz but later realized “there is a need to exact accountability and to teach a lesson to these notorious red-taggers not just for me but for many others: trade unionists, community organizers, peasant organizers, lawyers, teachers, ordinary people whom they called enemies of the state.”

Araullo’s lawyer, Kristina Conti, explained that they chose not to file a libel complaint since they had been advocating the decriminalization of libel to prevent it from being used as a political weapon for silencing legitimate dissent and critical media reporting.

“However, there is a limit to one’s practice of free speech and it is not absolute…it cannot be used most especially for Red-tagging,” Conti said. “We want to show through this civil damages suit that Red-tagging is not protected speech, and is an abuse of this right.”