Tuesday, October 7, 2014

'Love triangle' in court

SAIPAN--I thought I was done with covering the trial courts when I arrived on Saipan. I started writing for “the lighter side” of the paper, covering community events and doing feature stories for special issues. Three months later, Cherrie, our court beat/police reporter was assigned to Palau and her beat was assigned to me. Being a reporter, especially if you are new, is a job where you can’t say no, where you can’t file an emergency leave or take a leave of absence whenever you want to, unless you die and I was still alive.

The first weeks in court and the police beat were ‘bloody stressful.’ It was so different from covering the trial courts and the police beat in the Philippines but I slowly learned the ropes and tried to do the best I can everyday to meet the four-stories a day quota, and the deadline.

One morning a year later, I was pacing back and forth at the second floor of the Supreme Court building in Susupe waiting to cover the bail hearing of a man accused of selling drugs. The hearing was already five minutes late, and I had another hearing to cover at the other end of the hall.

A girl in her late twenties with a little boy less than a year old strapped to her body was also in the hallway, obviously waiting for someone. Impatience was written all over my face. Peeking into my phone, I muttered loudly about what was taking them so long. Suddenly, the girl stopped in her tracks and looked at me, briefly then long and hard. I saw a flash of something which I interpreted as a flare of anger on her face and I raised an eyebrow. I didn’t know her and could not imagine any reason why she would be angry at me. 

For the next seven minutes, she kept throwing furtive glances in my direction until finally she stood up and stared at me openly. She was clearly pissed off (by my face maybe? I couldn’t help her!)
Below the stairs I finally saw police officers escorting a man in orange overalls with handcuffs, and I sighed in relief. I stood up and studied the man in orange, curbing the urge to steal a few photos. Suddenly the girl approached me and boldly asked if the defendant was my boyfriend.

My jaws literally dropped as I understood the flare of anger in her eyes earlier but I barely had time to pickup my jaws. It dawned on me that the defendant was her boyfriend and the little boy was their child. She was thinking I was the other woman. Oh geez. I wanted to laugh but I didn’t have time to answer or clarify to her that I didn’t know the defendant, and she can have all of him.

I hurried to the courtroom and sat at the bench behind the defendant. The girl sat on the second seat at the other side and kept looking at me. She no longer looked angry. She looked furious.

The bail hearing began and I took my notebook out and started scribbling notes, all the while observing the girl who was also closely watching me. I could have made things straight outside but I was kind of angry that she should jump to conclusions and the devil in me tempted me to prolong her agony.   

After the court was adjourned I I greeted some of the lawyers and the other reporters and rushed out of the courtroom, looking back to smile at the girl briefly (spell evil smile) that it dawned on her I was not a rival. Funny things do happen at the courts!
Watch out for my next post and read how I turned a police investigator into a crime suspect.

My Day in Court

We were directed to a counter to post bail. The guy behind the counter looked at my papers, looked at me and said “hmmm Raquel…do you know me?” I looked at him blankly and shook my head. 
THE text message from Donna, our newsroom admin assistant couldn’t have come at a better time. I was riding a jeep and almost to the office when I saw her message: “Don’t report to the office today. Police officers are here looking for you, and they have a warrant for your arrest. Don’t call now.”
Time froze and I froze, which was good because I was unable to knock on the roof of the jeep to signal the driver to stop.  

Somebody I wrote a story about filed a libel case against me but we did not get copies of the subpoena, so we were considered a ‘no show’ when the deadline came.It was crunch time and I know it was hard to concentrate to file my stories for the day but in this job, filing an emergency leave was out of the question, unless you die. I had to go to an internet cafĂ© to file my stories.

It all started a few weeks back when I stumbled upon a complaint filed against a government doctor who conducted a Cesaerian section on a woman who gave birth. The patient experienced non-stop pain in her abdomen for the next months and the doctor prescribed pain relievers. Exactly 18 months later, the baby was playing, bouncing up and down on the patient’s stomach when all of a sudden, a needle protruded from the patient’s stomach. She was brought to the hospital and it was discovered the doctor left a needle inside during the Cesaerian section. 

The patient sued the doctor, and I got the story. Fast forward, the doctor sued me. The problem started when somewhere along the line, one of the editors changed my term ‘indicted’ to ‘convicted’. One word made the drastic difference and now I was slapped with a libel case.
Indict is to formally accuse of or charge with a serious crime, while convict already proves someone of guilt and the complainant won’t accept an erratum. Libel is a criminal offense in the Philippines and punishable by imprisonment plus huge fines. I did not want to go to prison  and I didn't have money to pay for any fines.

Our bail was placed at PhP 10,000 each. Thankfully, the complainant included the assistant editor Nelson and publisher Sir Tony so I was not alone to face my first libel case and the office shelled out money to pay our bail but I was so scared I could hardly concentrate. I watch and listen to court proceedings at the trial courts everyday, but when you are on the other end of the bench, it’s a whole different scary story.
The case was filed in the next city, where the complainant doctor lives. I soon learned that her husband works at the Clerk of Court office there, and I couldn’t help but think that was why we didn’t get copies of the subpoena. Strike one.

We were pointed to a counter to post bail. The guy behind the counter looked at my papers, looked at me and said “hmmm Raquel…do you know me?” I looked at him blankly and shook my head.
“Well, I made it to the headlines because you wrote about me for some alleged wife beating case,” he said. I gulped, mumbling something about just doing my job.Strike two.

Our chances were getting slim. Then I learned that my case was raffled off to a judge who also made it to the headlines because I wrote about him not fulfilling his child support duties. Strike Three.

Our lawyer was a veteran in the field though and played the case filing one hearing postponement after another. That’s one thing in the Philippines. You can hold off a case as long as you have money to pay your lawyer. To cut it short, our lawyer filed a motion to drop me from the case because no malice was proved and I left the country. A couple of years later I learned that the case was dropped altogether. Several more complaints were filed later, but the death threats that often came my way were way scarier. You don’t know who your enemies are. 
Mark this page, more adventures coming up!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

I made it to the front page! (and look what it gave me! LoL)

(Note: it took exactly one year and 15 days before I picked up this blog again. I took a long time debating whether I should go on and wash my linen in public but then whatd…LoL From now on I will jot down my experiences as they come, not on a chronological order anymore.)

A newbie at the newspaper when i started a decade ago was called a Cub Reporter, and your stories, if they get published at all, will have that description under your name. It made me feel like a baby bear or something but your goal is to remove that ‘Cub’ as fast as possible. Getting my story published as the headline is a mission impossible.
Miraculously, I survived the two-week notice and decided to hang around a bit more. I was beginning to get the hang of the newsroom when one day three months later, the skies fell. I was reassigned to the Trial Courts, a beat that no one wants to take except if you are a law student. I won’t bore you with the ‘gory’ details of the following weeks of nightmare in the courts. If I haven’t seen a police blotter in my life, my first day in my new beat was also the first time I stepped inside the court. 

I wandered aimlessly through the dark halls of the courts, not knowing what to do or where to go. No one taught me to swim and I was to do it myself, or sink. Fortunately rivalry was not that fierce in Davao and Romeo, the court reporter from the other paper patiently taught me the ropes. I always waited for him everyday because I couldn’t get any story or the clerks would not give me any documents if he was not around because they did not know me. If I attend a court trial, I always end up blank because I did not know what was going on. I didn’t even know how to read a complaint, which usually runs from five to a thousand pages.

Digital cameras were considered unaffordable in 2003, and cellphones didn’t have cameras yet so we patiently read through the thick pages taking notes while clerks scowled at us waiting for us to finish. It was bloody and oftentimes, I end up unable to read my notes.
One morning, Romeo texted me he was on sick leave. That means I had to fend off for myself. The court clerks still do not trust me and were quick to say ‘nothing new’ when I approach.
We had a quota of four stories a day and it was nearing lunch break and I still was unable to get one single story. I was getting desperate when lo and behold, a huge pile of papers were dumped into the Clerk of Court’s table. I was lucky. The clerk was taking a working lunch so she allowed me to browse through the files. The huge pile of papers was all complaints against a politician from one of the neighboring towns sued for over 30 cases of Estafa. I pored over the pile, scribbling as fast as I could. I still have to look for three more stories. 

Back at the office I wrote as fast as I could, wondering why the news editors make such a big fuss when they were editing my story. I slept late and just dozed off when my phone rang. And rang, and rang. It was still 6 a.m.! Wondering what happened, I saw a hundred messages and a thousand missed calls. Okay, that was an exaggeration but it was unusual. At 8:30 a.m. I received another call from a man who told me was the politician's lawyer and he wants to talk to me. Another lawyer, still under the politician called me again an hour later. 

I learned that my story made it to the headlines, my first real headline, read by all radio stations in their news programs and the local TV stations as well. I poked and stirred a hornet’s nest and wasn’t even aware of it. All newspapers, TV and radio stations usually carry similar stories everyday but that day, I scooped everyone. I ignited a bomb and the explosion reached far and wide, and I was not even aware of it.
It was much later when I learned that not all stories of big personalities and politicians make it to the papers, unless it’s really explosive. I didn’t understand how certain ‘things’ worked and I how some reporters were supposed to be deaf and blind to some sensitive stories. I also learned along the way that those ‘hush’ arrangements are made over coffee or lunch, or other favors given by the person in question.
The price of that banner story resulted to a dark day for me, and I almost threw my cellphone in the sea to stop the growing trauma each time it rings. 

A reporter’s job is a continuous learning experience, and every day is never predictable. Watch out for more adventures!