[OPINION] Inquirer should investigate the rape of Pepsi Paloma

Author’s Note: The Philippine Daily Inquirer management in Manila recently instructed editors to submit all articles related to the Pepsi Paloma case for review before publication. This column was rejected for immediate publication based on that new policy. That’s disappointing and troubling. But there’s good news. I’ve also been informed that the Inquirer is planning to look into the Paloma case, which is what this column is about. I welcome the news that the Inquirer, which I continue to respect for the role it has played in upholding press freedom in the Philippines, apparently does not plan to simply walk away from the Pepsi Paloma controversy

The Philippine Daily Inquirer did not yet exist when Pepsi Paloma, a 14-year-old actress, was raped in 1982. She allegedly killed herself 3 years later, although others believe she was murdered. Her death happened roughly 7 months before the Inquirer’s birth in December 1985.

This year, in an unexpected twist in the history of one of the Philippines' most influential publications, the rape of Pepsi Paloma has reemerged as a major news story with the Inquirer right at the center. The sordid tale of sexual assault and the mysterious death of an abused girl has, to many, now also morphed into a troubling case of press repression.

The controversy erupted when Tito Sotto, the comedian-turned-senate president, sent a letter to the Inquirer demanding that it remove articles on the rape of Pepsi Paloma. 

The response of the Inquirer, once a symbol of the fight for press freedom during and after the Marcos dictatorship, was stunning. Just days after Sotto’s letter, Inquirer gave in to his demand. 

The articles were deleted from the internet. They were replaced with a note from an Inquirer editor defending the deletions.

The deleted articles included columns by US-based lawyer Rodel Rodis, who recalled the rape and death of Pepsi Paloma.

The articles were based mainly on previously published and reported accounts of the crime. But something happened: the articles, particularly the lead column titled “The Rape of Pepsi Paloma,” went viral. By earlier this year, it had already been shared more than 100,000 on Facebook.

From 4 years ago

The Inquirer editor did not mention that the articles had gone viral.

Instead the editor said the news outlet had asked Rodis “to substantiate some of the allegations he made on his contributed pieces through an email we sent to him on June 23, 2018. Up to now, we haven’t received any reply from him.”

It’s important to stress here that we’re talking about articles that were published about 4 years ago, columns that have been shared by tens of thousands of people and that were still being shared on social media.

Suddenly, after Sotto demanded that they be taken down, the Inquirer decided they weren’t good enough. 

“In making this decision, we are adhering to journalism’s core values of accuracy, fairness, balance, integrity and responsibility,” the Inquirer statement said. “Any doubt or question on the veracity of its articles are taken seriously and dealt with properly in accordance with our values and principles. We do this on all stories, features, and opinion pieces.

“We believe this is not a question of press freedom but the veracity of a story. We thank the public for your concern. Rest assured that INQUIRER.net remains to uphold what is true and fair without compromising our values.”

That last part was certainly true – once upon a time.

The Inquirer was founded and once led by two famous champions of press freedom in the Philippines, Eggy Apostol and the late Letty Magsanoc. 

And that last part is also where the Inquirer, I believe, can dramatically turn this story around by demonstrating that it intends “to uphold what is true and fair without compromising our values.”

I am not an official member of the Inquirer staff even though I’ve been a contributing columnist for more than 10 years. I am not privy the news organization’s next moves following the removal of the Pepsi Paloma rape stories. 

But there are hopeful signs that the news outlet once led by press freedom champions like Eggy Apostol and Letty Magsanoc will do the right thing. 

One of them came from my friend John Nery, Inquirer columist and editor, who, shortly after the Pepsi Paloma rape articles were deleted, tweeted: “Like many others, I am deeply concerned and am first working through internal channels to reverse the takedown.”

Reversing the deletions of the articles is certainly one solution. But I think there is another way the Inquirer can restore its honor and affirm that the Inquirer seeks “to uphold what is true and fair without compromising our values.” 

Journalism challenge

The Inquirer should and must take the lead in investigating the vile, tragic story of a girl who was abused and, some say, murdered more than 30 years ago. The Philippine Daily Inquirer, which has been known for its investigative journalism, should mobilize its investigative reporting resources and capabilities to look into the rape and death of Pepsi Paloma. 

The Pepsi Paloma controversy clearly is not just another showbiz story that happened 36 years ago. The president of the Philippine senate, the former comedian now known to be one of the most powerful and controversial politicians in the country, a staunch ally of a president who inspired the mass slaughter that continues to wreak havoc in poor communities across the country – this politician actually managed to have a major Philippine news outlet delete from the internet 4-year-old articles related to Pepsi Paloma’s rape and death.

That is a tremendous blow to an already beleaguered Philippine media.

If the Inquirer editors don’t do anything and simply walk away from this story, they would be sending the message that all that talk about “Balanced News, Fearless Views” is just talk. 

There is an important journalism challenge in front of them. And the Inquirer should take it on. 

The Inquirer owes it to the more than 100,000 people who shared the Pepsi Paloma articles to explain why they weren’t good enough, and to dig deeper into a decades-old crime involving the rape and death of a girl. 

Who knows? Maybe the Inquirer may even uncover a deeper truth. Maybe the comedian-turned-senate president is right, that, despite the many published reports about the crime, he had absolutely nothing to do with the reprehensible abuse of a girl more than three decades ago. Maybe he was, as he has at times claimed, been a victim of some sinister conspiracy.

Maybe the Inquirer could even uncover a different image of Tito Sotto, the comedian-turned- senator who has been repeatedly accused of plagiarizing the works of others, including the revered late American Senator Robert Kennedy; who once dismissed a female cabinet official as “na-ano lang” because she raised a child a single mother; and who has been a staunch defender of the President who inspired a mass slaughter of poor Filipinos.

Maybe the president of the Philippine Senate, whose demand to delete articles on the internet the Inquirer immediately obeyed, maybe he can finally uncover the truth about the rape of a 14-year-old girl named Pepsi Paloma. – Rappler.com

 

Benjamin Pimentel is a San Francisco-based writer. He is the author of UG, An Underground Tale, a biography of Edgar Jopson, a leader of the movement against the Marcos dictatorship and the novel Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street.