Shooting the messenger

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LITO MONICO C. LORENZANA

“You’re fired today. Get out of the service. You do not contradict your own government.”
– President Duterte to DDB Chairman Benjamin Reyes (GMA News)

AND with that unceremonious public shaming, another one “bites the dust”. What brought this about was the bureaucrat openly contradicting his boss in public, pegging the number of illegal drug users in the Philippines to a mere 1.8 million—in contrast to the 4 million used by the Deegong in justifying his war on drugs.

The first ever on record on a similar scenario ended too in tragedy circa 70 B.C. A messenger was sent to Tigranes, King of Armenia, warning him of the coming of Roman General Lucullus. Tigranes didn’t like the message and had the messenger’s head cut off. No right information was ever given Tigranes again. He eventually lost the war.

The analogy ends here but the lesson portrayed may wreak havoc with the way the President’s men will communicate with him and with the public henceforth. This incident opens a plethora of questions that puts under scrutiny the way the Office of the President is run and even how the personality of the President shapes the culture of his bureaucracy. The limitation of the length of this article prevents the writer from discussing the issue thoroughly. But let me refer the readers to a 3-part series that I wrote in this column on January 26, February, 2 and February 9, 2017 on “Controversial Alter-Egos”.


Bureaucrats and members of the Cabinet may now be very careful about double -checking their data when presenting them to the big boss or to the public. Public policy when proclaimed by vested authority impacts on the lives of the citizenry. As an instrument for government to better the lives of its people, its principal purpose, it demands no less than precise data upon which a strategy is shaped.

This is where the confusion started. In December last year, Rappler’s Maria Ressa asked the President on his use of 3 million to 4 million drug addicts in his speeches rather than the 1.8 million DDB estimate. PRRD only said that most of drug addiction cases are not reported anyway. Another reason is that he trusts the estimates from PDEA rather than from the DDB. Perhaps, this is to give flesh to his claim of the wide extent of drug use and abuse in the country.

A parallel issue is what is the role of the Dangerous Drug Board (DDB) in contrast with the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA). Under its mandate, the DDB “…makes policies, strategies and programs on drug prevention and control”, under the office of the President. The PDEA “…is the lead anti-drug law enforcement agency, responsible for preventing, investigation, and combating any dangerous drugs…”. Further to this, “PDEA is the implementing arm of the DDB”. Both are under the Office of the President.

If it is the task of DDB to shape strategies and policies that will curtail drug usage in the country, it is only appropriate that they make use of accurate and timely data in every assumption and future projections. What is unfortunate is that the President himself has already been using data contradictory to one proclaimed by the DDB. Right or wrong, the President’s pronouncement has precedence and a subaltern has no business contradicting the President in public. If he stands by his figures, then it is the alter-ego’s duty to tell the facts even if it contravenes presidential directives, but a private approach could have been prudent on Reyes’ part.

But a nagging issue hovers in the periphery and it is not about the 1.8 million or 4.7 million drug addicts. How did they come up with such statistics? Data are essential in planning as it gives policy makers a grasp of the context and extent of the problems; fashioning solutions through timely and sustainable programs; allowing the implementers to carry out their responsibilities and achieve their goals properly and effectively. Inaccurate or unavailable information are prone to gloss over strategic gaps that could be fatal to programs on the ground.

The conflicting number of drug addicts espoused by the two agencies under the Office of the President is further complicated by definition of terms. Both have failed to differentiate between drug addiction, drug usage and drug pushing, thereby distorting the numbers submitted to the President and the public. In the process, the lower number belies the oft-repeated position of PRRD that the country is in the grip of unnamed drug lords and on the way to becoming some South American type of narco-state. This resulted in a fatal consequence to the DDB chairman, the bearer of bad numbers.

This whole sordid episode on the dismissal from office of the bearer of bad news; tantamount to the proverbial “killing of the messenger,” could have, I’m afraid, an unintended result, a chilling effect on bureaucrats tasked to gather and proffer data to the presidency. Will they in future willingly stand by their facts and risk public shaming or will they trim them to the liking of the Deegong?

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