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CHR: Democracy needs a free press

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) underscored the role of a free press in a democracy, even as it noted the Philippines’ steady decline in the World Press Freedom Index in the last four years.

In her keynote message for a journalists and human rights defenders’ project Friday, May 28, CHR executive director Jacqueline Ann de Guia said democracy needs a free press to thrive and survive.

“It is the power of a free and independent media—to be a watchdog, to promote transparency and accountability, and to amplify the voices of the weak, disadvantaged, and marginalized—that put pressure on government to be responsive to the needs of the people,” de Guia said.

De Guia however expressed alarm at the state of press freedom in the country, adding that international group Reporters Without Borders has noted continuing attacks against mass media, journalists and other human rights defenders in the past four years.

“The state of press freedom in the country is a cause for concern for CHR. In the past four years, data from the World Press Freedom Index shows a continuous decline of the Philippines from 133rd out of 180 countries in 2018; to 134th in 2019; 136th in 2020; and 138th in 2021,” de Guia said.

De Guia spoke at the project launch of Safeguarding Journalists and Human Rights Defenders in the Philippines by various media groups led by the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication and the International Media Service.

Other attendees included members of the Journalists Safety Advisory Group (JSAG) that crafted the Philippine Plan of Action for the Safety of Journalists (PPASJ) last November 2019 on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Ampatuan Massacre.

The JSAG included the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, Center for Community Journalism and Development, and the Philippine Press Institute.

Commission on Human Rights executive director and spokesperson Atty. Jacqueline Ann de Guia. (AIJC photo)

In her address, de Guia said the press must maintain its ability to expose corruption, demand redress of grievances, and call out lies and propaganda in favor of truth.

She added that the press must equally allow the people to decide better and demand more from the government that bears the obligation to uphold and protect the human rights of all.

The last four years have seen journalists, media workers, and media organisations being repeatedly confronted by a dangerous and hostile climate marked by episodes of harassment, silencing, and even death.

“And with the closure of ABS-CBN, we have greatly felt the gap in delivering critical information in hard-to-reach communities to help them cope and survive disasters, calamities, and this current Covid-19 pandemic,” she said.

De Guia said that the CHR’s Task Force on Media-Related EJKs (extrajudicial killings), with regional desks in its Bicol, Cotabato and Cebu regional offices, is ready to investigate attacks against the press.

“Thus far, 21 media killings have been docketed for investigation in different CHR regional offices covering July 2016 to May 2021. We are also investigating 7 cases involving 20 victims of other alleged human rights violations, including unlawful/arbitrary arrest/detention, frustrated killings, and red-tagging,” she said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

CPP: Murderers of NDFP consultants must be punished

The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) condemned what it called the coordinated murder of two National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) consultants in the Visayas Friday night.

In a statement, CPP information officer Marco Valbuena blamed the Rodrigo Duterte government, particularly the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), for the killing of what it described as senior NDFP consultants.

“The (CPP) condemns in the strongest terms the (PNP) and the (AFP) for the coordinated killings last night of National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) peace consultants for the Visayas region,” Valbuena said.

Reynaldo Bocala, a known CPP and New People’s Army leader in Panay Island, and companion Willy Arguelles were killed in Iloilo City by the police while former Roman Catholic Priest and NDFP-Cebu negotiator Rustico Tan was killed in his sleep in Camotes Island, Cebu Province.

Valbuena said the killing of Bocala and Arguelles in Barangay Balabag, Pavia, Iloilo City was a “[t]okhang-style liquidation operation purportedly to serve warrants of arrests.”

The CPP said Bocala and Arguelles were unarmed when the police-military raid happened.

The PNP’s Criminal Investigation and Detection Group however said both victims put up a fight as the operatives were serving four warrants of arrest against Bocala for alleged murder.

The police issued the same claims in the killing of other NDFP consultants Julius Giron in Benguet Province, couple Eugenia Magpantay and Agaton Topacio in Rizal Province as well as other suspected elderly and sick New People’s Army fighters throughout the country.

All the killings happened either at night or before dawn.

The killings and arrests of NDFP consultants as well as suspected CPP and NPA members went into overdrive after Duterte cancelled peace negotiations with the underground Left in mid-2017.

“Stories by police and military officials of firearms recovered from the scene are all made-up to make the crime a legitimate police and military operation. This modus operandi, used against the wave of drug killings since 2016, is now being used by the military and police in the series of killings against activists and revolutionaries,” Valbuena said.

The killing of Tan is similar to the assassination of NDFP consultant Randy Felix Malayao who was also asleep when killed by two bullets on his head in Nueva Vizcaya.

Masterminded by Duterte

Valbuena said the CPP holds Duterte and the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) as masterminds of the killings of Bocala, Arguelles and Tan.

The massacre of the three was coordinated at a high level with the aim of driving terror into the hearts of the people and their revolutionary forces, Valbuena said.

The CPP spokesperson said the Duterte government perpetrates coordinated killings by the AFP and the PNP against NDFP peace consultants and suspected leaders of the Party and NPA.

“They are being summarily executed in line with Duterte’s the ‘take no prisoners’ fascist policy in the vain hope of making the people and their revolutionary forces surrender to his terrorist regime,” Valbuena said.

“It is an outrage that the fascists are targetting NDFP peace consultants who are in their senior years. Bocala was 75 years old, while Fr. Tan was 80,” he added.

Valbuena said the NPA must do its utmost to punish the perpetrators of the murders, “[i]n line with the (CPP’s) directives.” # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Another Bloody Friday: Police kill NDFP consultant in Iloilo; gunmen murder former priest and NDFP negotiator in Cebu

Police killed a National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) peace consultant In Iloilo City while a retired NDFP leader and former priest was also gunned down in Camotes Island in Cebu province Friday evening.

Reynaldo Bocala, a known Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and new People’s Army (NPA) leader in Panay Island, was killed in a raid conducted by the Philippine National Police-Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (PNP-CIDG) last night at Providence Subdivision, Brgy. Balabag, Pavia, Iloilo.

Local alternative media outfit Panay Today reported that the PNP-CIDG conducted the raid to purportedly serve four warrants of arrests against Bocala.

Pavia, Iloilo City where Bocala was killed by the police.

Bocala was the husband of NDFP peace consultant Concha Araneta-Bocala.

Also killed in the operation was a certain Willy Arguelles who was with Bocala at the time of the incident.

Iloilo police initially announced the incident was an illegal drugs buy-bust operation, local radio reports said.

Panay Today said a Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) Document of Identification was found on Bocala by the members of the operating team.

A Kodao source confirmed Bocala was a JASIG Document of Identification holder.

A JASIG Document of Identification supposedly protects its bearer from surveillance, harassment, threat, arrest and killing as participants in the peace process between the NDFP and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP).

State agents however have killed and arrested several JASIG-protected peace process participants, especially after formal NDFP-GRP peace negotiations were cancelled by GRP President Rodrigo Duterte in 2017.

Killed in his sleep

In Cebu province, former Roman Catholic priest and NDFP consultant for Cebu Rustico Luna Tan was killed in Purok Caimito, Brgy. Upper Poblacion, Pilar, Camotes Island, Cebu.

Tan was asleep on his hammock when shot on his face and torso by unidentified assailants.

He was 80-years old.

Rustico Luna Tan as a political detainee. (Karapatan Central Visayas photo)

A former political detainee, Tan was abducted in 2017 by the PNP detained in Tagbilaran City, Bohol for alleged 14 counts of murder.

The charges were dismissed by the Tagbilaran Regional Trial Court in 2019.

The former priest was again slapped with murder charges in Bacolod City, Negros Occidental soon after but was freed in March 2020 by release on recognizance.

Tan had been active since in community organic farming initiatives in Camotes Island until his death yesterday.

Tan was also arrested with 14 others from the Visayas and detained at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City in 1989 on charges of illegal possession of firearms and rebellion. He was eventually cleared of the charges.

Tan first gained prominence as NDFP peace negotiator for Cebu Province between 1986 and 1987 in the first ever NDFP-GRP peace talks.

Ordained as a priest under the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart congregation, Tan served in various parishes in Surigao and Lapu-Lapu cities.

He later joined the NDFP-allied Christians for National Liberation.

Tan was among the many priests from all over the country who joined the CPP-led revolutionary movement during the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Workers complain of ‘slave-like’ labor in Isabela’s sugar cane fields

It is not only in the sugar cane fields of Negros and Panay islands that slave-like labor exists, a farmers’ group revealed.

The Unyon ng Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA) said it exists as well in two of Northern Philippines’ biggest provinces: Isabela and Cagayan.

Hundreds of UMA-Sta. Maria (Isabela) members filed a complaint before the Isabela Provincial Council protesting “slave-like” wages and working conditions in local sugar-cane plantations.

In a statement, the group also condemned lack of benefits and mass lay-offs after several sugar-cane plantations entered into a bio-ethanol production contract with Green Future Innovations-Ecofuel Land Development, Inc. (GFII-Ecofuel) based in San Mariano, Isabela.

The farm workers are employed by sugar-cane plantations located in Sta. Maria and neighboring Sto. Tomas towns in the said province as well as in some municipalities in southern Cagayan province.

UMA said its sugar cane farm workers only receive daily wages of P16-50 for weeding, P40-70 for planting, P150 for fertilizing, P94 for taking care of sugar cane plants and P225-250 for harvesting.

Other kinds of work receive equally meager pay, it added.

More or less 1,695 hectares of sugar cane plantations have entered into the contract with GFII-Ecofuel, UMA said.

Sta. Maria Mayor Hilario Pagauitan owns majority of the plantations in the agreement with 685 hectares, the group said.

UMA said its members previously received P200 daily for various kinds of work in Pagauitan’s sugar cane fields.

The group said the mayor promised to increase his workers’ wages after the 2019 local elections.

The farm workers’ wages have drastically dropped after the elections however as Pagauitan entered into an agreement with the bio-ethanol company, the group said.

“When the contract with GFII-Ecofuel started, 287 workers immediately lost their jobs while the few who were retained are being forced to work in far places,” UMA said in Filipino.

Who is Pagauitan?

Mayor Pagauitan is a currently in his second term as Sta. Maria mayor.

Locally famous for his rags-to-riches story, the local executive earned his fortune as a mining engineer in Indonesia before owning his own mines in Mindanao.

Pagauitan and wife Sophia control East Coast Mineral Resources Co. with rights to a mining prospect in northeast Mindanao.

The mayor is also reported to be very close to entering into a shares-for-asset swap deal with 78 percent of Vulcan Industrial and Mining Corp. owned by the Ramoses of the National Bookstore fame.

He is believed to be worth billions of pesos.

He also owns several other properties, including the famous Agripino Resort. He also owns a helicopter he uses to commute between his hometown and other parts of the country.

Despite his incredible wealth, however, UMA said farm hands in Isabela, including Pagauitan’s, receive the lowest wages among sugar cane hands in the country.

The local executive has yet to respond to Kodao’s request for comment.

Below minimum wage

It in last wage order issued on February 4, 2020, the Cagayan Valley Regional Tripartite Wage and Productivity Board mandated a minimum daily wage of P345.

Section 2 of Wage Order No. RTWPB-02-20 also mandated that the minimum wage should be paid to all workers regardless of their position, designation or employment status.

Section 5 of the order as well said that workers should be paid the minimum wage for eight hours of work or P43.125 per hour for less than eight hours of work per day.

UMA said work in sugar cane fields is very difficult, forcing workers to spend very little time with their families.

“If the workers suffer accidents out in the fields, they receive no medical help. They have no pay slips, sick leave, vacation leave, overtime pay, maternity benefits, death benefits, holiday pay, 13th month pay, SSS benefits and Philhealth,” UMA said.

The workers are not also given personal protective equipment such as boots, gloves, and others, the group added.

“Because of their starvation wages, the workers are hard up in feeding their families and sending their children to school, neglected their health and live abjectly. Their conditions are only made worse by the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing quarantines,” UMA said.

Isabela and Cagayan are currently among the pandemic hotspots in the country.

UMA said it hopes its litany of complaints will be given due attention in their dialogue with the provincial council today. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Potential bets start advertising on Facebook as 2022 campaign shifts to social media

Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, former senator Antonio Trillanes IV, and many local politicians are top ad spenders on Facebook a year before the polls. The Commission on Elections is drafting rules to govern online campaigning.

BY CHERRY SALAZAR/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Potential candidates have started advertising on Facebook more than a year before the May 2022 elections, spending several thousand to a few million pesos since August 2020, data from the social media platform showed.

A significant shift to online campaigning is expected during the 2022 elections, especially with mobility restrictions imposed during the pandemic, although in-person activities will remain a staple of the campaign, according to Eric Alvia, secretary general of poll watchdog National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel).

“Less people now read newspapers, and with the shutdown of ABS-CBN, there are less media outlets covering the news. People are gravitating towards social media,”  Alvia told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).

Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian has spent P4.5 million boosting more than 600 Facebook posts over the past eight months, while former senator Antonio Trillanes IV and his supporters spent more than P1 million to promote a total of 45 posts.

They are the two biggest ad spenders so far on the social media platform among potential national candidates. It’s an average of P562,250 in ad spending a month for Gatchalian and about P130,000 a month for Trillanes.

Gatchalian’s Facebook ads were mostly about his stand on issues, particularly on the education and energy sectors. These were pushed through Gatchalian’s official Facebook page “Sen. Win Gatchalian,” which has more than two million likes and followers, as of this writing.

Trillanes advertised his page and his posts accusing President Duterte of corruption. One of the pages supporting the senator — “We support Trillanes 2022” — also showed bills he authored and sponsored. In some posts, both pages used the same graphics.

Other potential candidates have also started advertising on television and radio. Taguig Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano ran an ad that called for the passage of House Bill No. 8597, which seeks to provide each family with P10,000 in cash assistance.

Several ground activities have also been arranged nationwide, including gatherings in support of the presidential candidacy of the survey frontrunner, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, the president’s daughter. On Facebook, a few supporters paid for ads to promote her, too.

All these advertisements outside the official campaign period, which begins three months before the polls for national candidates, are not considered premature campaigning. They are not covered by election rules limiting campaign spending based on a 2009 Supreme Court ruling on a petition that sought to ban these early advertisements.

Many local pols

Other early advertisers on Facebook among potential national candidates included Antique Rep. and former senator Loren Legarda, who spent over P400,000; and Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara, who spent more than P200,000 although his second term in the Senate will not end until 2025. 

Supporters of Sen. Imee Marcos, Public Works Secretary Mark Villar, and Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles also paid for ads to promote themselves. Marcos’s term also ends in 2025.

Among members of the House of Representatives, Camarines Sur Rep. LRay Villafuerte, Jr. spent nearly P1 million and Buhay party-list Rep. Lito Atienza spent over P700,000.

The Digital 2021: Global Overview report showed that Filipinos spent more time than any country in the world on the internet, particularly on social media. The report was conducted by creative agency We Are Social and social media management platform Hootsuite. 

The report also showed that Filipino netizens used social media more than four hours on average daily or nearly double the global daily average of two hours and 25 minutes.

More candidates will be relying on social media for advertising, said Rona Caritos, executive director of the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (Lente). She noted how online campaigning, which was previously only used by national candidates during the 2016 polls, has been tapped by local candidates beginning the 2019 midterm polls.

“[Political advertising] will no longer be concentrated at the national level, especially as most Filipinos are scrolling down their Facebook feeds and are on their phone screens because of the pandemic,” she said. 

Indeed, many local politicians have paid for Facebook ads. Camarines Sur Gov. Migz Villafuerte spent nearly P1 million while Gatchalian’s brother, Mayor Rex Gatchalian of Valenzuela City, and Cebu Rep. Pablo John “PJ” Garcia both spent less than P200,000. 

PCIJ image

Facebook Ad Library

These are data available to the public through Facebook’s Ad Library, a searchable database of ads across Facebook and Instagram, showing the posts that were boosted on the social media platforms and who paid for them. 

There are 4,000 ads in the Facebook database so far, although product placements such as those by Chowking PH, the World Food Programme, and Spotify were included in the database. 

Clare Amador, Head of Public Policy of Facebook Philippines, said the tool is intended to make advertisers accountable. (READ: Q&A: ‘Facebook tool to mitigate foreign interference, make 2022 polls transparent)

It is also intended to mitigate foreign interference in elections. “We’ve been involved in more than 200 elections around the world since 2017. We know that every election is different,  so we take this experience and work closely with local experts to learn what’s most useful to mitigate risks and prevent interference,” Amador told PCIJ. 

Facebook uses artificial intelligence to review all ads before they are shown on Facebook and Instagram. 

“In certain cases, if an ad is already running and it’s about elections or politics, it can be flagged by automated systems or reported by our community. These ads will be reviewed again and if found to be violating our policy by missing a disclaimer, we will also take it down and require they complete authorizations to continue running it,” Amador said. 

James Jimenez, Commission on Elections spokesperson and director for education and information, said he welcomed the activation of the monitoring tool in the Philippines. 

“It’s very important,” he told PCIJ. It will be useful in monitoring election advertising online and make sure candidates will follow spending limits, he said.

“It’s inescapable that Facebook will be a major factor [during the campaign], but hopefully it’s not the only social media platform that people will use,” said Jimenez. 

Amador said Facebook will work with Comelec to “find ways to support them in their efforts to hold political advertisers  more accountable.”

Comelec Resolution No. 10488, detailing rules and regulations implementing the Fair Elections Act, provides rules to govern online campaign spending. 

Candidates are mandated to register their web sites and social media pages, including those that endorse the candidates, and report how much they have spent on advertising. However, monitoring was impossible in previous elections and candidates did not report it, said Lente’s Caritos. 

Jimenez said Comelec would release more guidelines for online campaigning before the start of the official campaign period in February 2022. 

While the Facebook Ad Library shows how much the candidates spend on the social media platform, it is not clear yet how Comelec will treat the ads paid for by their supporters. 

“That’s the challenge. What happens if you are a supporter and you boost your blog post that’s promoting someone’s candidacy? We’re still making the rules for that,” Jimenez said. 

Monitoring YouTube, too

Beyond monitoring the candidates’ spending, Jimenez, Alvia, and Caritos expressed concerns about misinformation and disinformation spreading online during the campaign. 

Other than Facebook, Caritos sees the need to also monitor YouTube as she expects candidates turning to the “largely unregulated” platform for unscrupulous activities. 

Facebook is only next to YouTube as the most popular social media platform among Filipino netizens.

“They will be uploading YouTube videos that spread disinformation, change the narrative, and show ‘alternate realities’. That’s something we will see,” Caritos said. 

Namfrel’s Alvia said even short video formats, like those on TikTok and Instagram, would likely be used in online campaigning to boost engagement and recall.

He said the 2022 campaign might particularly see a lot of discourse on Covid-19-related assistance from politicians, including, but not limited to, social amelioration, access to vaccines, and livelihood support.

“Social media is more accessible to a lot of people and the content is easier to digest but not necessarily correct,” Alvia said. “Kanya-kanyang version ng katotohanan (People will be coming in with various stories of their own).” #

NPA ambushes gov’t troops in Tumandok Massacre; CPP hails ‘partial justice’

The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) hailed as “partial justice” the New People’s Army’s (NPA) ambush of a Philippine Army (PA) unit it said was involved in the massacre of nine Tumandok in Panay Island late last year.

Five soldiers of the 61st Infantry Battalion of the PA were reportedly killed in an ambush by Mt. Napulak Command of the NPA in Sitio Anoy, Barangay Cabalaunan, Miag-ao, Iloilo on May 15 at 10 o’clock AM.

“This is in partial fulfillment of the vow to exact justice for the Tumandok people and other victims of the crimes perpetrated by the 61st IB and other units of the AFP,” CPP chief information officer Marco Valbuena said in a statement.

The CPP earlier called on the NPA to avenge the victims of the massacre that killed nine Tumandok tribes people and arrested several others.

The victims of the Tumandok Massacre opposed the Jalaur Mega Dam Project that threatens to inundate vast areas of their ancestral domain.

READ: Gov’t troops massacre 9 Tumandok in Panay

“It is also a retribution for the killing of peasant leader John Farochilin killed last year by elements of the 61st IB in the same area,” Valbuena added.

The CPP spokesperson said five government troopers were killed in the ambush while five others were wounded.

Valbuena said among the initially wounded was a certain Staff Sgt. Antot who later on died in a local hospital.

In an earlier announcement, however, NPA Panay Regional Operation Command spokesperson Julio Montana said as the number of government troopers killed may be as many as eight.

“Five were killed in the actual firefight while three were wounded who we later learned died in the hospital. The casualties were taken by two helicopters after reinforcements have cleared the area,” Montana said.

“On the part of the NPA, its fighters safely retreated a few minutes after the firefight began,” he added.

NPA fighters in a ceremonial parade. (CPP photo)

PA denies number of casualties

In a local radio interview, however, PA 3rd Infantry Division spokesperson Maj. Cenon Pancito denied the NPA report and said only one government soldier was wounded in what he claimed was an “encounter”.

Capt. Ferdinand De Vera, 61st IB Civil Military Operations Officer, in a press release said the soldier was taken to a hospital in Iloilo city and is in stable condition.

He said the elements of the 61IB responded to the information given by the residents on the presence of “suspicious individuals.”

Col. Joel Benedict Batara, 61st IB commander also denied the incident was an ambush but an encounter that happened when his troops responded to information of NPA presence in the area.

The 61st IBPA is headquartered at Miag-Ao.

Valbuena however chided Batara for denying the PA casualties.

“What kind of arrogant officer is he who cannot give recognition to men who died under his command, Valbuena asked.

The CPP spokesperson said Miag-ao residents posted on their social media accounts that the military was flying helicopters in the area after the firefight, likely to secretly ferry casualties away. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

‘Big liar’: Joma belies Esperon’s claim he ordered the killing of NTF-ELCAC spokespersons

National Democratic Front of the Philippines chief political consultant Jose Maria Sison belied allegations by national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. he issued an order to kill counter-insurgency task force spokespersons.

“Esperon is a big liar in claiming that I have released an order to kill the so-called talking heads of NTF-ELCAC (National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict) and other officials of the security sector of the Duterte regime,” Sison said in a statement Saturday, May 22.

Esperon on Friday alleged the military stopped the plot after a so-called joint police and military operation killed three alleged New People’s Army (NPA) fighters in Sta. Rosa, Laguna last week.

News reports said those killed were identified as Rommel Rizza alias “Jomar/Bernie,” the alleged commanding officer of the NPA’s Regional Special Operations Group in Southern Tagalog; “Ka Blue/Billy,” a medic and supply officer; and “Ka Dean,” the group’s intelligence officer.

“One of their missions is to hit NTF-ELCAC talking heads. However, they were pre-empted,” Esperson, task force vice chairperson, said.

Sison however said Esperon’s claim is “pure concoction” as he is not in any position to issue such an order to any organ, unit or individual in the Communist Party of the Philippines and the NPA.

“Whoever is the current CPP chairman cannot issue an order, like the tyrant (Philippine President Rodrigo) Duterte, without collective decision-making,” Sison explained.

Sison, a 35-year political refugee in The Netherlands, said he is proud to carry the historic title of CPP founding chairperson but has not personally participated in any collective decision-making by the party’s central committee since his arrest in 1977.

Sison said Esperon is obviously covering up two obvious instances of extrajudicial killings (one in Baras, Rizal and now Sta. Rosa City, Laguna) by referring to his name and linking them to the three victims of the Sta. Rosa operations without offering any evidence.

Assassination plot

Instead, Sison said he has more evidence that his life is again under threat from Philippine government agents who are plotting to assassinate him in The Netherlands since last year.

He said no less than the Dutch police have called his attention to the current threat since March 2020.

“An informant has also come forward last year to report that there is such a plot to assassinate me. Since then, I have taken all necessary precautions,” Sison said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Canadian Parliament denounces attacks on Karapatan’s Palabay

Canadian parliamentarians called on the Philippines government to stop its officials from harassing and threatening the lives of human rights defenders.

In a statement, the Canadian House of Commons Subcommittee on International Human Rights said it is appalled that Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay was harassed and threatened by a top intelligence official after appearing as a resource person in its hearing earlier this month.

“After sharing her traumatic experiences defending human rights in the Philippines, Cristina Palabay’s life was threatened by agents of the Philippines government as a direct result of her appearance before the Subcommittee,” it said from Ottawa.

“The Subcommittee is appalled by the situation Ms. Palabay finds herself in,” the Subcommittee added.

Palabay and Rappler executive editor Maria Ressa narrated human rights abuses by the Rodrigo Duterte government in a hearing conducted by the Subcommittee last May 4.

The Canadian parliamentarians said Palabay’s “brave” testimony described the crumbling state of human rights in the Philippines, for which is continuously being persecuted.

Immediately after, National Intelligence Coordinating Agency Alex Paul Monteagudo posted images online alleging Palabay’s connections with the underground Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army.

Just last month, Monteagudo earned the ire of Philippine Senators and the employees union of the Philippine Senate for his “malicious, baseless and dangerous” red-tagging activities of public sector unionists.

The Subcommittee said it will take “additional measures” to mitigate risks Palabay and other resource persons face.

“The personal safety and wellbeing of all those who appear before the Subcommittee are of the utmost concern to its members,” the Subcommittee said.

Red-tagging memes posted by NICA director general Alex Paul Monteagudo. (Karapatan-supplied images)

It also called on the Canadian government to denounce the attacks, especially against human rights defenders such as Palabay.

“The Subcommittee reminds states that have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, such as the Philippines, that when attacking human rights defenders, they are violating their international human rights obligations,” it said.

Palabay also denounced the attacks, saying Monteagudo’s posts show the Duterte government’s “disdain for independent justice-seeking efforts.”

Palabay said reprisals by government officials against defenders who provide testimonies and information to governmental or inter-governmental bodies on the human rights situation in the Philippines should stop. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Pharma execs cash in on expensive Covid vaccines while billions wait inoculation

MANILA, Philippines—Nine new billionaires were created by excessive profits in the manufacture of coronavirus vaccines, a global alliance revealed.

The People’s Vaccine Alliance (PVA) said its analysis of recent Forbes Rich List data showed massive wealth is being generated from the Covid pandemic and executives of corporations manufacturing vaccines are cashing in.

“Between them, the nine new billionaires have a combined net wealth of $19.3 billion, enough to fully vaccinate all people in low-income countries 1.3 times,” the PVA– whose members include Global Justice Now, Oxfam and The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS)—revealed Thursday ahead of this year’s G20 leaders Global Health Summit in Rome, Italy.

“Meanwhile, these countries have received only 0.2 per cent of the global supply of vaccines, because of the massive shortfall in available doses, despite being home to 10 per cent of the world’s population,” the alliance added.

Among the new billionaires are executives of successful Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers Moderna, Pfizer’s BioNTech and CanSino Biologics.

The PVA said the nine new vaccine billionaires, in order of their net worth are:

  1. Stéphane Bancel –  Moderna’s CEO (worth $4.3 billion) 
  2. Ugur Sahin, CEO and co-founder of BioNTech (worth $4 billion) 
  3. Timothy Springer  – an immunologist and founding investor of Moderna (worth $2.2bn)
  4. Noubar Afeyan – Moderna’s Chairman (worth $1.9 billion) 
  5. Juan Lopez-Belmonte– Chairman of ROVI, a company with a deal to manufacture and package the Moderna vaccine (worth $1.8 billion) 
  6. Robert Langer – a scientist and founding investor in Moderna (worth $1.6 billion) 
  7. Zhu Tao co-founder and chief scientific officer at CanSino Biologics (worth $1.3 billion) 
  8. Qiu Dongxu, co-founder and senior vice president at CanSino Biologics (worth $1.2) 
  9. Mao Huinhoa, also co-founder and senior vice president at CanSino Biologics (worth $1 billion) 

The Philippines imports vaccines from both Moderna and BioNTech. The Department of Health told the Senate that two doses of Moderna cost PHP3,904 while BioNTech cost PHP2,379.

In addition, eight existing billionaires– who have extensive portfolios in the Covid vaccine pharmaceutical corporations – have seen their combined wealth increase by $32.2 billion, the PVA said.

The added wealth created through the manufacture of the vaccines are enough to fully vaccinate everyone in India, a country most affected by the pandemic, the alliance added.

PVA said the eight vaccine billionaires who saw their wealth increase are:

NameRole/description$ billions 2021 $ billions 2020 
Jiang Rensheng & familyChair, Zhifei Biological products $  24.40  $ 7.60 
Cyrus PoonawallaFounder, Serum Institute of India $  12.70  $ 8.20 
Tse PingSinopharm $  8.90  $ 7.30 
Wu GuanjiangCo-founder, Zhifei Biological products $  5.10  $ 1.80 
Thomas Struengmann & familyportfolio includes Germany’s BioNTech and Uruguay’s Mega Pharma$ 11.00  $ 9.60 
Andreas Struengmann & familyportfolio includes Germany’s BioNTech and Uruguay’s Mega Pharma $  11.00  $ 9.60 
Pankaj Patel controls listed company Cadila Healthcare. The company now manufactures drugs to treat Covid-19 such as Remdesivir from Gilead. Its Covid-19 vaccine, ZyCoV-D, is undergoing clinical trials. $  5.00  $ 2.90 
Patrick Soon-ShiongImmunityBio – selected for the US federal government’s “Operation Warp Speed” to help quickly develop a Covid-19 vaccine. $   7.50  $ 6.40 

PVA said expectation of huge profits from the Covid vaccines created the billionaires as stocks in pharmaceutical firms are rising rapidly.

The alliance warned that the monopolies allow pharmaceutical corporations total control over the supply and price of vaccines, pushing up their profits while making it harder for poor countries such as the Philippines to secure the stocks they need.  

The PVA said that Covid vaccines should be manufactured rapidly and at scale, as global common goods, free of intellectual property protections and made available to all people, in all countries, free of charge.

Philippine vaccine procurement chief Carlito Galvez has lamented the difficulties the Philippines faces in procuring vaccines amid limited global supply.

At an online meeting of the United Nations Economic and Social Council last April, Galvez said: “The Philippines remains resolute in championing a policy of ensuring universal, fair, equitable, and timely access to Covid-19 vaccines.”

A vial of the Moderna Covid vaccine. (Photo by Ian Hutchinson/Unsplash)

The faces of vaccine profits

In a statement, international humanitarian and development organization Oxfam said the billionaires are the faces of the huge profits created by the “monopolous” pharmaceutical corporations.

“What a testament to our collective failure to control this cruel disease that we quickly create new vaccine billionaires but totally fail to vaccinate the billions who desperately need to feel safe,” Oxfam’s Health Policy Manager Anna Marriott said.

Marriot said the development of the vaccines were funded by public money and should be first and foremost a global public good, not a private profit opportunity.

The campaigner urged the end of the “monopoly” to allow for greater vaccine production, the lowering of their prices and faster inoculation of the world’s population.

Earlier this month the US backed proposals by South Africa and India at the World Trade Organization to temporarily break up the so-called monopolies and lift the patents on COVID-19 vaccines.

This move has the support of over 100 developing countries, and, in recent days, countries like Spain have also declared their support, as has Pope Francis and over 100 world leaders and Nobel laureates, the PVA said.

Rich countries as enablers of huge profits

The call for the faster manufacture of cheaper Covid vaccines are falling on deaf ears, however, with at least two of the richest countries blocking the proposal, the PVA revealed.

The group added that Italy, host of the G20 Global Health Summit today, continues to sit on the fence on the issue, as are Canada and France. 

“As thousands of people die each day in India, it is utterly repugnant that the UK, Germany and others want to put the interests of the billionaire owners of Big Pharma ahead of the desperate needs of millions,”  Global Justice Now senior policy and campaigns manager Heidi Chow said.

UNAIDS executive director Winnie Byanyima for her part said: “While the companies making massive profits from COVID vaccines are refusing to share their science and technology with others in order to increase the global vaccine supply, the world continues to face the very real risk of mutations that could render the vaccines we have ineffective and put everyone at risk all over again.”

“The pandemic has come at a terrible human cost, so it is obscene that profits continue to come before saving lives” Byanyima added.

 The PVA said that Covid vaccines should be manufactured rapidly and at scale, as global common goods, free of intellectual property protections and made available to all people, in all countries, free of charge.  # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Group lauds impending passage of bill vs child marriage in PH

An international humanitarian and development group lauded the impending passage of a bill seeking to end child marriage in the Philippines.

In a statement, Oxfam Pilipinas said it welcomes the House of Representatives Committee on Women and Gender Equality’s (CWGE) decision to approve in principle a proposed bill seeking to end child marriage in the country. 

In a hearing Wednesday, May 19, the committee approved House Bills nos. 1486, 3899, 5670 & 7922 and directed its secretariat to draft a unified version of the proposed laws for possible approval at its next hearing.

The bills seek to address the legal loopholes that allow child marriage in the Philippines and would strengthen child protection mechanisms to prevent further acts of violence and abuse, Oxfam Pilipinas said.

Rep. Bernadette Herrera-Dy, an author of one of the bills, said there is an urgent need for a national law to prohibit child marriage.

“[This is to] ensure that all Filipino children have the opportunity to grow and develop to their full potential,” Herrera-Dy said.

CWGE chairperson Malou Acosta-Alba acknowledged that 12 million girls from all over the world are married before the age of 18 every year.

“That’s 23 girls every minute,” she said.

Gabriela Women’s Party Rep. Arlene Brosas also lauded the development, saying her party supports the CWGE in pushing for the “inalienable rights of women and girls and in registering the essence of consent.”

The Senate unanimously passed a similar measure called Senate Bill No. 1373 or the “Girls Not Brides” bill last November 9.

The “Girls Not Brides” bill seeks to prohibit marriage between minors – persons below 18 years old – as well as between a minor and an adult.

Any person who causes, fixes, facilitates or arranges a child marriage shall be fined at least P40,000 and face a prison sentence between 8 years and a day and 10 years, the Senate Bill proposes.

Grave human rights violation

Oxfam Pilipinas Gender Justice Program Manager Jeanette Dulawan said child marriage is a grave violation of human rights and a serious public health issue. 

“As with other forms of sexual and gender-based violence, child marriage is rooted in gender inequality and poverty. Early marriage is seen as a way to ‘sanction’ girls for premarital sexual activity and pregnancy outside marriage,” Dulawan said.

The United Nations Children’s Fund said the Philippines has the 12th highest absolute number of child brides in the world at 726,000.

An estimated 15% of Filipina girls are married before the legally-allowable age of 18, the agency said.

The Philippine Commission on Women (PCW) also explained that child marriage is practiced by some religions and cultures in the country.

Some allow the marriage of a female at the age of puberty, which is presumed upon reaching the age of fifteen, the PCW said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)