FACT CHECK: Did Inquirer say man in 'Pietà' photo was killed by PNP?

MANILA, Philippines – Defenders of the Duterte administration claimed that the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) erred in reporting that the police executed Michael Siaron, the slain drug suspect in PDI's viral Pietà banner photo last year.

This claim is a lie. 

Evoking images of Michelangelo's Pietà, the photo was taken by award-winning photojournalist Raffy Lerma, and was published on PDI's front page on July 24, 2016. 

The photo came under fire after Malacañang said on Saturday, October 21, that Siaron was killed by a member of a drug syndicate, not the police. Based on this claim by the government, propagandists and trolls attacked PDI and Lerma for supposedly publishing a piece of "fake news." 

PDI, however, never said in its original photo caption that the Philippine National Police (PNP) killed Siaron. 

What PDI said was that Siaron was killed by "motorcycle-riding gunmen."

Here is PDI's caption for that photo on July 24, 2016: "A weeping Jennelyn Olaires hugs partner Michael Siaron, 30, a pedicab driver and alleged drug pusher, who was shot and killed by motorcycle-riding gunmen near Pasay Rotonda on Edsa. He was one of six killed in drug-related incidents in Pasay and Manila yesterday."

A screenshot of this Inquirer front page, as uploaded online, is embedded below.

BANNER PHOTO. The caption of this Inquirer photo on July 24, 2016, is as follows: 'A weeping Jennelyn Olaires hugs partner Michael Siaron, 30, a pedicab driver an alleged drug pusher, who was shot and killed by motorcycle-riding gunmen near Pasay Rotonda on Edsa. He was one of six killed in drug-related incidents in Pasay and Manila yesterday.' Screenshot from www.inquirer.

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The copy of PDI's page one on July 24, 2016, where the photo appears, is also accessible on the PDI website

A similar photo, shot by award-winning photojournalist Noel Celis, was published by Agence France-Presse. 

The Agence France-Presse photo came with this caption: "This photo taken on July 23, 2016 shows Jennilyn Olayres (centre) hugging the dead body of her partner Michael Siaron who was shot by unidentified gunman (sic) and left with a cardboard sign with a message 'I'm a pusher' along a street in Manila."

'Fake news' from Tiglao

Still, former journalist Rigoberto Tiglao wrote a Manila Times column on October 23 this year, titled, "Fakest 'fake news' was viral Inquirer photo."

"Siaron, the newspaper claimed,* was executed by the police in the course of President Duterte's war against illegal drugs," according to Tiglao, former spokesman of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, an ally of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Tiglao's column came with the following footnote: "To be accurate, the PDI in the article that accompanied the photo did not blame the police, reporting only that the pedicab driver was killed by 'two men riding on a motorcycle.' It was the photographer Lerma who would write four days later, referring to the victim: 'It was the third extrajudicial killing of suspected drug pushers that I covered on the graveyard shift last week.' Extrajudicial killing is defined as executions by the police or other state agents of suspected criminals without the sanction of a court."

Lerma wrote about this "third extrajudicial killing of suspected drug pushers" in an opinion piece for the Inquirer. While opinion writers, like Tiglao himself, do not represent the official stance of their newspapers, Tiglao nevertheless said it was the Inquirer that "claimed" Siaron was killed by the police.

In his opinion piece, Lerma never said the PNP killed Siaron, as Tiglao falsely claimed. (READ: Tiglao and his fever swamp of conspiracy theories)

Abella, Cayetano, Andanar

Like Tiglao, officials of the Duterte administration released statements on the Pietà photo based on the wrong premise.

Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella said on Saturday, "The relentless attribution of such killings to police operations was both premature and unfair to law abiding enforcement officers who risk life and limb to stop the proliferation of illegal drugs in our society." 

Days later, Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said in a post by state-run PTV, "The identification of the suspected killer of Michael Siaron, also referred to as the Pietà drug suspect, vindicates the members of the PNP and other law enforcement agencies who were portrayed as merciless killers." 

In an interview on Wednesday, October 25, Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano also cited the Pietà image in discussing a recent meeting with European Union officials.

"We're also telling them, look at the alleged Pietà picture. It already went around the world, it already went to international organizations, and they condemned the PNP, and even if you look at the survey, mayroong hindi naniniwala sa PNP dahil sa mga iyon (there are some who don't believe in the PNP because of those things)," Cayetano said.

It was in the same interview that Cayetano backtracked on his earlier statement that the Philippines was rejecting all forms of grants from the EU.

Duterte's defeated running mate said that if critics "only waited for the investigation," they would have found out that a "drug lord," not the PNP, had Siaron killed.

Duterte himself said, however, that 9,000 policemen, or 4 in every 100 cops, use or sell illegal drugs.  

Policemen have also been suspected as behind vigilante-style drug war killings across the Philippines.

In October 2016, two young police officers – Senior Inspector Magdalino Pimentel Jr and Inspector Markson Almeranez  were accused of gunning down Citizens Crime Watch regional director Zenaida Luz in front of her house in Oriental Mindoro. 

Pimentel supposedly wore a "bonnet and hoodie jacket" while Almeranez used a "facemask and a wig to disguise himself," according to the Manila Bulletin. The Bulletin story was titled, "2 PNP officials unmasked as riding-in-tandem killers."

Months later, Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David denounced vigilantes as "termites" and "new Judases," as he questioned why the PNP has failed to catch these unidentified killers. – Rappler.com

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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