Since coming to power last June, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been on a mission to eradicate what he claims is the country's pandemic drug problem.

Police records show about 7,000 Filipinos have been killed since then. One-third of those deaths have occurred during police operations, but the rest have been attributed to unknown gunmen in a wave of vigilantism that has been unleashed by the rhetoric of the president himself, critics say.

This campaign, what Duterte calls a "war on drugs", has created a new beat for a group of photojournalists who have come to be known as the "nightcrawlers".

Each night they gather at the Ermita police station in downtown Manila and wait for word about the latest killing. Then it's a race to the scene to try and get a photo of the body before it is taken away by the authorities. This proximity to the killing spree has given the photojournalists a unique insight into this story.

Al Jazeera sent The Listening Post producer Nic Muirhead to the Philippines to embed with the night crawlers of Manila.

For these photojournalists, it's just another night on the job. But of all the killings they've documented, one photo stands out. It happened last July. A pedicab driver, Michael Siaron, was shot dead by unknown assailants.

I don't see President Duterte destroying the culture of impunity. If anything else, I see him strengthening this culture.

Inday Espina-Varona

"It immediately struck us that it was a very different image because most of the time ... even families were not allowed to go inside the police line. But the partner of Michael Siaron was able to cross the police line and refused to be controlled by the police. She pleaded for help, but there was nothing we can do," recalls Vincent Go, photojournalist for UCANEWS Philippines.

The image of the woman cradling her dead partner got the attention of Duterte, who thought it was staged.

"There you are, sprawled, and you are portrayed in a broadsheet like Mother Mary cradling the dead cadaver of Jesus Christ. These people, we'll be doing dramatics here," Duterte told the press.

Inday Espina-Varona, former chair national association of journalists, denies that anything was staged. 

"The truth coming out from the lens of this one photojournalist was very inconvenient for the president. But that's the way it is. People are gunned down. Women, mothers, daughters, wives come out scream and cry, helpless, begging for help. And that's the truth of life in this country," Espina-Varona says.

As witnesses to countless murder scenes, these journalists have a unique insight into how the police have conducted the war on drugs campaign. Al Jazeera asked them how that relationship developed over the last seven months.

In the beginning, the police needed the coverage to let the people know that there's an ongoing campaign against drugs. "But later on, as the stories produced a lot of negative effects, the police have been more silent and made it difficult for us to get to the crime scene on time, " says Go.

Philippines national police chief Oscar Albayalde says nothing is hidden from reporters. "We let the media go with the police, if the situation permits it, and we do not put the lives of the media people in danger."

Espina-Varona wonders "What do we give in return for a continued coverage? Philippine outfits have been very good in presenting the human dimension. But we're just really at the tip of the iceberg, because we haven't really gone down and linked together the real big story, which probably is that there is very little distinction between narco gangs and law enforcement in this country."

Source: Al Jazeera