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!


Friday, September 13, 2013

And I called it 'quits' on the second day

SO it was one humid Monday morning in February 2003 when I set out on my first day of work as a ‘reporter’ for Sunstar, one of the three major newspapers of Davao City.
My three other companions who were hired with me were already deployed to their beats to tag with the regular reporters. One went to the Business section, one to the Sports and the other one was sent to cover the political beat. I was given a trial at the police beat. 

With no experience to back me up, to say that my first day is a nightmare is an understatement. The regular police reporter told me to meet her at the regional police office at 9 a.m., and I had no idea where on earth it was. I just boarded a Jeepney and kept watching for the gate with a signboard. I was so busy looking and when I finally saw it, the jeepney was passing over another car on the road. I had to walk back over 200 meters in the sweltering heat and another 250 meters more to reach the police office.
The regular reporter had already left. She had no way of contacting me as I didn’t have a cellphone and she didn’t even remember my name or my face in the first place. I introduced myself to the police on duty and he handed me a thick police blotter.

I have never seen a police blotter in my entire life, and I could not make a head or tail of the jumbled pages of reports from all police stations in the region.I stared at the folder and started leafing through, hoping something will make some sense so I can get a story. I stared at one page for eternity, trying to make sense of the capitalized initials like OOA (how could I know it meant ‘on or around,’ to describe the time the incident happened, MOL for more or less, and NFA—I often hear those initials when the price of rice goes up and the National Food Authority sells low quality rice at lower prices. How was I to know it meant ‘No Further Action!’

Luckily, the police reports that came in at the regional police office were mostly typed, although obviously the fifth or sixth copy and barely readable. Little did I know that the worst was yet to come. I was about to encounter police blotters with entries that look like doctor’s prescriptions, and in English constructed in such a way that looks like it’s still under construction. I gathered small bits from the report I was looking at and learned it was a stabbing incident and the suspect was detained at the San Pedro Police Station. 

I scribbled notes, which meant I literally copied that whole police blotter into my brand new notebook (digital cameras were not even in my bucket list yet)  and headed to the San Pedro police station, hoping the regular reporter is already there. She was, and she was interviewing somebody from the detention cell, protected by the bars. The smell was overpowering and I stayed as far away as I could, scared of the mass of jumbled bodies inside the detention cells. 

I stuck to feature writing in college and did not even try straight news writing and I definitely did not have an idea how to transform a police blotter item to a readable story. All computers were occupied and the regular reporters were busy beating their deadlines. It was as if we newcomers didn’t exist and when one some of them went out on cigarette breaks, we were told to use their computers.

Another shock awaited me. They were using WordStar and I have never seen it before. The newsroom admin was kind enough to set it for me and have it ready so I can start typing. It took me bloody forever before I even typed one sentence, distracted with the cursor which kept on blinking horizontally below the letters. Double terrible first day pains.  I sat there for a couple of hours, having no idea how police stories are made until in desperation, I copied the police blotter to the computer then left in a hurry, crushed with the realization that I always thought I had a good command of the English language and discovered that I knew nothing at all.

I reported to Sir Tony the publisher the following day and told him “I quit” because I can’t do the job. He asked me to stick it out for two weeks and the rest is history.

Read how I got my first banner story, and how it turned my world upside down so that I had to ask for a ‘reporter protection program.’

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

How everything began

Sunstar Davao's former newsroom
No matter what kind of job you have—be it gloomy or glamorous, your first day at work is always bound to be full of embarrassing, awkward moments until you get familiar with the job. My foray into the world of journalism is different. It feels like it is my first day every day, even after 10 years.
I guess my career in writing began at the very early age of two, when I learned to use my right forefinger to write in the muddy front yard of our house during rainy days, and drawing figures in the dust despite the constant sermon of our babysitter. I thought I was going to be an artist then, judging from the complicated abstract figures I always drew but reality hit me full force in Grade one when we were told to draw our seatmate. My seatmate looked like a fat louse in my drawing, and she did not talk to me again until I moved to another school in third grade.

Frustrated with my elder sister who turned out to be left-handed, my mother decided to make it up to me and spent more time teaching me to trace lines and curves ever so patiently, with my right hand.
I guess I learned fast because after that, I think my mother regretted teaching me how to write, and that’s when I became a full-pledged writer. I wrote on walls, tables, chairs, and wallpapers, and everywhere, particularly on areas that are resistant to soap suds or chlorine solutions.

After a few months of writing, I decided I had enough and stopped. That's when I entered first grade, just when I was required to write.  Long story but to make it short, where are we again?

Oh, my career in writing industry was not handed down to me on a platter. Neither did I sweat and labor in college to get a journalism degree. I know I love to write but that’s it. That ‘love’ stopped the time I was ordered to go out and gather news and write four of them and submit them before the deadline day after day.
But seriously now, I never envisioned myself to become a reporter for a daily newspaper covering politics, court drama and the action-filled police beat. I dreamed of writing but it’s more of feature stories where I am my own boss, write at my own leisurely pace and time, travel and eat and get paid to write. Nice life, huh?
It all started with a deadline
The moment I got out of college I got employed right away—by myself. I was happy and earning good in the marketing world, never knowing what it is to quake and run when a boss gets cranky, until one afternoon 10 years ago when I saw a newspaper Ad announcing the need for a reporter.
It was almost 4pm on the deadline day, and I had barely an hour to make a resume and get to the newspaper office at the other end of Davao City two rides away, just when traffic starts to get heavy. It was a challenge I couldn’t let pass and I decided to try my luck, more of beating the deadline than actually thinking about the job.

At exactly 4:58 pm, two minutes before the deadline, I pushed open the doors of Sunstar Davao and submitted my papers to a woman who was sitting on top of the table nearest the door. Everyone was waiting for the two minutes to time out and leave work.
The woman briefly scanned my application and asked if I had  any experience. When I shook my head, she said nonchalantly “we’ll just call you”.
I told her I had no cellphone and no landline either. I just put the location of a food stall at the bus terminal as my contact point, if ever.
“We’ll just send you a telegram,” she said in a tone that dismissed me as she tucked my papers in her desk and got her bag. Experience was obviously important, and she was clearly not impressed with my application. 

Haha and good luck, as if telegrams still exist. I bit my lip to stop telling her RCPI and PT&T telegraph companies had closed shop years ago. I learned later that Miss Olive, that woman, was the general manager of Sunstar Davao. 

I forgot about it all until one day two weeks later at the Ecoland Bus Terminal when I waiting to board a bus for Cotabato City. A man with a big camera slung on his neck and a vest most photographers wear was staring at me. He looked at the papers in his hand, looked at me and back to the papers. I was getting alarmed when he hesitantly called my name and asked if he can talk to me for a moment.
Truly alarmed now, I glanced at the papers in his hand and blanched when I saw my photo. I grew up in a small town where bombings and gunshots and people getting shot and killed are considered normal, but when a stranger stares at me and my photo was in his hand, it’s a different story.
Then I remembered that application letter.

The photographer which I knew later as Kuya Seth told me to report to the office to take the entrance exam, and said I must have had a very impressive resume as it was the first time the office asked anyone to search for someone at a very busy terminal, one who doesn’t even have a cellphone.

The Exam
Needless to say I showed up for the exam and met three other applicants, all with journalism degrees and with the ‘right connections.’ I only had three units of Journalism, three units of Creative Writing and no connections. I also learned that of all the applicants, 12 of us were called for the exam and they need only four.
Reality sure slaps hard. 

The others were from Davao City and had published some stories in the newspapers for their requirements.
I stared at the questions and the sheets of yellow paper supplied for our answers. 
And suddenly I wanted to start laughing. The questions covered local and national politics. What do I know? I always read the lifestyle pages first and the headlines one week later. Name at least 30 elected and appointed officials of Davao City. Again how was I to know? I even get lost in the streets. Senators? I remembered only 12 of the 24. What’s my opinion on the pressing issues like the mining at Mt. Diwata? Nothing, except that everyone in my family has visited the place, except me.

Anyway I did not submit a totally blank answer sheet. I scribbled an unsolicited essay at the bottom, explaining the blank pages and being honest about being not familiar with Davao City, and how I could have copied from the others if I wanted to. 

We were told to wait for their call. If they call, that means we passed the written test and had to report for the interview. I waited and waited for the call, forgetting I had no cellphone, no landline, no nothing. I also only check emails every two weeks or so. Then I remembered I was told to call and check.
Which I did a week later,  although I knew I would never pass that test. Miraculously, Donna, the newsroom admin assistant scheduled for an interview right away.

No longer funny, oh i mean it's funny!
I was wearing my usual denim jeans with slits and holes in the legs, an over-sized t-shirt with huge cartoon prints all over, and open-toed sandals. I was not going to spend even a cross-eyed peso to shop for clothes or have a makeover just for an interview for a job I was not even serious about in the first place.   

A friend lent me a presentable blouse and I refused the jeans, telling her that if I won’t pass the interview just because of my denim jeans, so be it.

I was told to wait for the publisher, a “Sir Tony” to interview me. It was my first job interview and I was nervous, expecting to face a dignified looking man in a coat and tie on a swivel chair. Taking a deep breath, I I entered the conference room and found a shirtless man in shorts with a towel slung on his shoulders, shampoo and soap dish in his hand. Sir Tony was obviously on his way to the bathroom and stopped by to interview me. He had a room at the office, I learned later. Sir Tony bluntly told me I don’t know how to write a news story at all but he is willing to give me two weeks try out as a paid apprentice.

I never found out why he hired me, but I bet that unsolicited essay in my exam must have made some impact.
Anyways, I am still laughing.

 *Watch out for my real first day of work as a reporter, and how I quit on the second day.