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‘Are we supposed to just forget he killed Jennifer?’

“So a murderer (will be) released for good conduct. Are we supposed to just forget that he killed Jennifer Laude because he’s done some good? Another question: you think this murderer (I’m not even gonna say his name) wasn’t treated fairly, but was it fair that Jennifer Laude was murdered out of hate just because of her sexual orientation?” — Liza Soberano, actor

Mother of political detainee appeals to have daughter and infant reunited

By Joseph Cuevas

Maritess Asis, mother of political prisoner Reina Mae Nasino, renewed her appeal to the Supreme Court to release her daughter who just gave birth last month.

This after jail authorities ordered Nasino’s one-month old baby girl be separated from her following the Manila Court’s junked her petition to be allowed to take care of the infant at least a year even inside the prison.

At around 12:30 pm Thursday, August 13, Manila City Jail Female Dorm personnel handed over the infant to her grandmother.

The baby, wrapped in a blanket, was wailing when separated from her mother, Asis said.  

“Mabigat sa dibdib ko, nakita ko kasi ang anak ko. Kaya nananawagan po ako sa Supreme Court. Ibaba niyo po ang desisyon para makasama na niya ang anak niya,” she said. (It is heartbreaking to see my daughter this way. That is why I am appealing to the Supreme Court to hand out its decision so that my daughter would be with her infant.)

Maritess Asis, mother of political prisoner Reina Mae Nasino, with her granddaughter.

Asis said that she herself was only able to see her daughter from a distance during the turnover.  

“Ang sakit-sakit po na magkahiwalay sila. Nararamdaman ko po ang nararamdaman ng anak ko,” she said. (It is painful that they are separated. I feel what my daughter feels.)

The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) lamented the government’s decision to separate Nasino from her infant, describing the move as ruthless and callous.

In a statement, NUPL said that amid the pandemic, authorities are pushing for the “heartless and inhuman act” of separating a baby from her only source of nutrition and protection at a vulnerable stage of her life.

The lawyer’s group also expressed dismay at the Manila Court’s ruling that lactation facilities that will enable mothers like Nasino to express milk should be referred to the local government or the appropriate government agency, “implying that these are no concern of the jail.”

The irony is the government is celebrating Breastfeeding Awareness Month this August under Section 12 of RA 11028 or the Expanded Breastfeeding Promotion Act of 2009. Under this law, all government agencies have the duty to uphold children’s right to their mothers’ breastmilk,” the NUPL said.

“Likewise, under RA 11148, or the Kalusugan at Nutrisyon ng Mag-Nanay Act of 2018, Ina (Nasino) and her baby should not to be separated for early breastfeeding initiation and exclusive breastfeeding, which is part of the strengthened integrated strategy for maternal, neonatal, child health and nutrition in the first one thousand (1,000) days of life,” the group added.

Nasino gave birth last July 1 at the Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital and was forcibly returned to prison with her baby a day after.

She was arrested November last year along with two other activists in what her fellow activists describe as part of an ongoing government against progressive groups.

Meanwhile, political prisoners support group Kapatid reminded Supreme Court magistrates about its long-pending petition to release select prisoners due to COVID 19.

The group said it filed its petition last April 8 requesting that pregnant women and lactating mothers, the elderly and sickly, and those who have served their sentences be freed to help decongest prisons and prevent outbreaks in the country’s overcrowded prisons. #

Hidden Victims of the Pandemic: The Old Man, the Jail Aide, and the Convict

Three persons deprived of liberty describe how inhuman conditions in the country’s jails and prisons are placing them at greater risk amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Here are their accounts as told to Aie Balagtas See. The images, drawn by Alexandra Paredes, are artistic renderings inspired by PCIJ file photos of prisoners from various jails.

By Aie Balagtas See/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

“All prison detention cells are Covid-free. That is the safest place right now,” Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said in late March, projecting an air of certainty even as the coronavirus pandemic raged. More than a month later, Año’s statement has become demonstrably false.

As of this writing, 716 inmates in city jails throughout the country have tested positive for the virus. In New Bilibid Prison (NBP), the national penitentiary in Muntinlupa, 140 inmates have been infected with the disease, and 12 deaths have so far been attributed to Covid-19. The Correctional Institution for Women in Mandaluyong has recorded 82 positive cases, with three deaths.

The lack of mass tests, the highly infectious nature of the virus, the lack of protective equipment and proper healthcare, and the inhuman overcrowding at Philippine jails and prisons are a potentially deadly combination.

On condition of anonymity, three “persons deprived of liberty” talked to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) in May, speaking out against the impossibility of physical distancing and the shortage of resources in prison and jail cells. The “minimum health standards” imposed outside are nonexistent. Worse, there seems to be a lack of empathy from the people who are supposed to take care of them.

Because they are locked away from the rest of society, inmates and detainees in prison and jail cells are the hidden victims of the Covid-19 pandemic. Here are their stories.



We’re dead,” the old man thought when he first learned of Covid-19 infections. Illustration by Alexandra Paredes

A. The Old Man (Quezon City Jail)

The inmates were getting ready for jail breaks. Our situation in Quezon City Jail has been tense since the coronavirus breached our walls in the last week of March.

We held a noise barrage that month. It used to be calmer here. No one complained even though it was unusual that many of us suffered from high fever in February and early March. One day, we found out that an empleyada tested positive for coronavirus.

That’s when paranoia kicked in.

Empleyada or empleyado, that’s how we call the jail guards. We only learned about her case through media reports. We were kept in the dark about our real situation here.

No one bothered to explain her condition to us. The jail guards left us guessing about our safety. We were left guessing about our lives. Days after the news broke, a fellow inmate died.

Nine more inmates who came in close contact with him later tested positive for the virus.

We were angry. We eventually found out that the empleyada works in the paralegal office where e-Dalaw or the inmates’ Skype sessions with their families were held.

That tells you that she came in close contact with a lot of inmates. I wouldn’t be surprised if all of us got infected. The only way to find out is through massive testing.

‘We’re dead’

An inmate who came in close contact with the empleyada was isolated as jail administrators waited for her results to come out. On the eighth day of his quarantine period, the inmate was sent back to our dorm. We don’t know why he didn’t complete 14 days in isolation. He ate with us, slept beside us. He did practically everything with us. Then the empleyada’s results came. Positive, it said. The jail guards went to our dorm and picked him up for another round of quarantine.

Most of us were in disbelief. As the inmate walked out of our dorm, it got us thinking: Are they really killing us here? Or are they just incompetent?

When I first learned of the Covid-19 infections, one thing crossed my mind: We’re dead.

We’re dead because social distancing is a UFO (unidentified flying object) here. Experts say maintaining physical distance is the best weapon against this virus. For a jail facility that’s nearly 500 percent congested, no matter how you look at it, social distancing is alien.

Let me tell you why I don’t trust their system here.

One of the quarantine facilities was on the floor reserved for tuberculosis (TB) patients. Can you imagine that? You’re breathing TB from that entire floor. If you have ordinary colds and cough, you might get tuberculosis instead of getting cured.

Now, no one wants to admit they are sick over fears that jail guards will send them to the TB floor.

How do they check us for symptoms? They ask: “Do you have cough, cold, fever or flu?” They want to know if we have diarrhea. If we answer “no” to all their questions, that’s it.

Every move, a peso sign

Usually, a plastic screen separates the jail nurse from us.

The empleyados have personal protective equipment. Not an inch of their skin is exposed while the detainees assisting them, called the orderlies, wear only face masks. The orderlies are the real first line of defense. They attend to inmates before jail nurses do.

Earlier this year, my daughter bought me two blister packs of flu medicines. They ran out before I could even take one. I had to give them to my sick dormmates because they couldn’t ask from the clinic.

Most of my dormmates had flu symptoms at that time, but I heard the clinic ran out of supplies. Sometimes, it’s hard to ask medicines from the empleyado. If you know someone from the clinic, your connection might save your life.

Otherwise, you have to buy. Every move you make requires a peso sign. You’re dead if you don’t have money, especially if you’re facing grave charges.

Receiving government provisions is like an awarding ceremony. They need photographs for the tiniest thing they give you. They give you a blister pack of vitamins, they take pictures. They give you a bar of soap, they take pictures.

They always need to take pictures as if these were trophies they would mount on walls.

But everything is a lie. They don’t take good care of us. They don’t even come near those in quarantine areas. They stay outside the bars that separate them from the inmates.

In response to that, I would reach out to grab them whenever they asked me how I felt. It always made them flinch and step backwards. It’s so funny! I do that just to see how they’d react.

I don’t feel we are being treated as humans here.

Hopeless, helpless

Inside jails, you are tormented by the thought that you can’t do anything. People want to complain but can’t. They don’t know how, and they are afraid.

Inside jails, you feel hopeless and helpless.

Hopeless because you are under their rule. It’s like a military camp. What the empleyado wants, the empleyado gets.

Helpless because there are no real safety measures. There are no standard procedures for quarantine.

This is why I decided to speak up. I want things to change – from quarantine and precautionary measures to the attitude of the empleyado nurse.

Once, a medical aide said a sick detainee needed attention. The empleyado answered back: “Bahala silang mamatay pabayaan mo lang sila (let them die).”

With that attitude from a government nurse, how will you feel?

Why are we put in such conditions?

We’re presumed innocent until proven guilty. We should not be placed in these life-threatening conditions. We still have the right to life.

Tormented

Tension between jail guards and inmates subsided when the government started releasing detainees in April. Some days they released 20 inmates, some days they released five, 10 or 38.

It’s a slow process but at least they’re doing something to address the problem.

On April 19, the jail started segregating the elderly from the general population.

Old men, like me, were taken to administrative offices previously occupied by jail personnel. One of the offices was the paralegal office! It was the office where the empleyada who tested positive for Covid-19 was assigned.

In one of the facilities, 11 people shared two gurneys and a stretcher. Sick inmates who recently died used to occupy those makeshift hospital beds. I don’t know if they have been disinfected.

After all the deaths and infections here, information remains scarce. They’re not telling us anything. Don’t we deserve to know the truth so we can also protect ourselves?

Like me, I’m already 60 years old. My immune system is weak.

For now, I take things one step at a time. I have this mindset that I will never wait for my release anymore. It will torment you if you wait for it. But at night, I sleep wishing that I can get out.

I wish I could benefit from the Supreme Court petition that was filed on behalf of detainees. When the courts sent me here earlier this year, I didn’t have colds and cough. Now I have it. I’m afraid that if they don’t do anything, I will die here in a few days.

“I think I’m Covid-19 positive as I have all the symptoms, but until now, I have never been swabbed for a test,” the jail aide said. Illustration by Alexandra Paredes

B. The Jail Aide (Quezon City Jail)

We badly need mass testing. I am one of the orderlies in Quezon City Jail. The old man and I are concerned that many of us are infected with Covid-19 already.

We don’t have sufficient information about what’s happening. They’re not telling us anything. I don’t know why. Maybe, they don’t want us to panic?

In March or February, we ran out of paracetamol after detainees with fever inundated the clinic.

Our Covid-19 prevention measures are also terrible! I’m one of those who assist jail doctors and nurses in the clinic. Those I work with are protected with proper medical equipment. Me? I attend to patients wearing only a glove and a face mask to protect myself.

In April, they relieved me of my duties when I went down with high fever. I really thought I would die. I had convulsions. I’ve been in quarantine ever since.

I think I’m Covid-19 positive as I have all the symptoms, but until now, I have never been swabbed for a test.

No physical distance

They placed me in isolation together with other sick inmates, which meant that if I had the virus, other inmates would catch it too.

Because it’s impossible to maintain physical distance, our line of defense against coronavirus is our immune system.

Even that is far-fetched.

Why? Because our food is terrible. Sometimes, we have longganisa (native sausage) for lunch for five straight days. For dinner, they always serve soup with vegetable. Sometimes our rice supply is half-cooked. Sometimes it’s burnt.

With lack of proper food and exercise, boosting our immune system is next to impossible.

“The truth is, many of us are sick,” the convict said. Illustration by Alexandra Paredes

C. The Convict (New Bilibid Prison)

More people are dying in New Bilibid Prison every day. It is as if there’s a typhoon of dead bodies raining all over us.

This May, more than 100 inmates died. That number is unprecedented. It’s the first time I have seen something like that since I arrived here 20 years ago.

Many of them died of pneumonia and other respiratory problems. However, there were no tests that would confirm them as Covid-19 patients.

We are scared of many things. We are scared of contracting the virus, but we are also scared of getting thrown inside isolation wards.

Prison doctors will isolate you if they think you have symptoms. We don’t want to be in further isolation. This fear prompts inmates to lie about their real health condition. The truth is, many of us are sick.

The NBP has three camps: the maximum, medium, and minimum security compounds. The isolation areas are located inside these facilities. They are different from the newly built “Site Harry” where Covid-19-positive patients from the Bureau of Corrections were put in quarantine or treated. Site Harry is located beside the medium security camp.

We are scared but we can’t do anything. Gang bosses might wring our necks if we complain. Speak up and face the risk of being locked up in a bartolina (isolation cell).

We have to wear masks wherever we go. Prison guards and gang leaders are strictly implementing this policy outside our dorms.

Ironically, we can remove our masks inside our dorms during bedtime. Covid-19 must be having a grand time inside our walls!

‘Their lives matter’

There’s no way to gauge what’s plaguing us, for sure. There’s no massive testing among inmates for the virus that has already killed one of us.

I can only assume.

Uncertainty is our enemy. Only one thing is clear to me: NBP is not Covid-19-free and we may contract the virus anytime. Dying of Covid-19 seems only a matter of time.

We are scared for the prison guards, too. They also need attention. They need to be tested, and tested rigorously.

Should guards die, they would be called heroes. The government would hail them as frontliners who risked their lives for public safety. Their lives matter.

But when we, the inmates, die, we will be reduced to nothing but ashes that our families can retrieve from crematoriums for a hefty price of P30,000.

We know that the virus is a problem everywhere. All we’re asking for is a health care system that caters to everyone, including us.

We’re humans too. #

***

Postscript:

A spokesman for the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) confirmed to the PCIJ that the female staff of Quezon City Jail who tested positive for Covid-19 was part of the “e-Dalaw operation,” but said her participation was limited to planning the inmates’ schedules. Detainees held a noise barrage after finding out that the empleyada had caught the disease, but the “commotion” was pacified and jail staff and inmates have since maintained open communication with each other, the spokesman claimed.

The BJMP did not respond to queries on whether suspected Covid-19 cases were isolated on the same floor as tuberculosis patients. –PCIJ, June 2020

Aie Balagtas See is a freelance journalist working on human rights issues. Follow her on Twitter (@AieBalagtasSee) or email her at aie.bsee@gmail.com for comments.

Alexandra Paredes is a graphic designer and artist. Her design practice spans social impact, corporate collaterals, teaching, writing, and commissioned art. Find her online at alexandraparedes.com.

Paredes’s illustrations are fictional representations of the old man, the jail aide, and the convict. These are artistic renderings inspired by PCIJ file photos of prisoners.

Pandemic Forces Judiciary to Hasten Digitalization

Constitutional questions pose a challenge to making digital courtrooms a reality.

BY ANGELICA CARBALLO PAGO/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

“Even during emergency, rule of law prevails.”

Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonen made the statement as he discussed how the judiciary, like nearly everyone else, had to work remotely because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Government lockdown measures that resulted in the closure of courts nationwide came as a shock to the Supreme Court, Leonen admitted on Wednesday, June 3, during the second session of the “Eyes on the Court” webinar series organized by Court Appointments Watch PH. 

Justices convened en banc to try to make sure courts continued to function, while protecting the judiciary’s 25,000 employees, who are also “frontliners,” he said.

But many court employees, including judges in Metro Manila, declined the high tribunal’s offer to do mass testing, which was “very strange,” Leonen said.

So the justices, themselves forced to use the “Zoom” web conferencing app for the first time on April 17, had to take a hard look at how courts could use digital technology to dispense justice.

“The court has been trying to address a lot of the dysfunctions that we have seen in the past that we are slowly realizing,” Leonen said during the webinar.

Logistical, legal issues

The process began well before the pandemic, but the switch to digital technology is not easy and many logistical and legal issues needed to be ironed out, Leonen pointed out.

Constitutional questions pose a major challenge to efforts to make digital courtrooms a reality, he said.

“All of them produce substantial and technological questions that all of us need to collectively address,” Leonen said.

For instance, can videoconferencing ensure a speedy and public trial that must be guaranteed under the constitution? How about the right to confront a witness against the accused and the process of authenticating evidence, which is required by due process?

Still, the high court was able to make technological inroads. Amendments to the rules on civil procedure and the rules of evidence, to allow electronic filing and service of documents, took effect on May 1.

Digitalization 2.0

With the imposition of the enhanced community quarantine in mid-March, the high court issued a series of administrative circulars, the first being that courts should not shut down and keep a skeletal staff. It directed executive judges to assign courts to be on standby for priority cases.

Another circular called for the use of hotlines so judges and personnel need not be in court all the time, to avoid exposure to the virus. The high court also added pilot areas for hearings via videoconference, which began in Davao City in September 2019. 

Promulgations of difficult cases have been done online, but the court is still making adjustments and identifying exceptions. Even the high court is going back to meeting physically, Leonen said. 

“A lot of the disadvantages of the digital medium and the platforms that are not really fit for many of our court activities should be done away with,” the former University of the Philippines law dean said.

Last year, an assessment found out that the first “e-Court program” had a lot of fatal errors, such as the use of an outdated platform and lack of cybersecurity precautions. 

A reboot, called “e-Court 2,” seeks to improve operating systems as well as managerial and feedback processes. The high court will start procurement for e-Court 2 soon, Leonen said.

Access to justice during the pandemic

The Supreme Court continued efforts to ensure that the poor and the marginalized would have access to the justice system despite the pandemic, he said.

Leonen heads two subcommittees tackling access to justice: underserved areas, which focuses on places affected by cultural or historical oppression or marginalization; and expanded legal aid through the “Enhanced Justice on Wheels” (EJOW) program.

The high court is looking to retool the EJOW, a mobile court that also offers services such as mediation and legal information, he said.

“One thing that we were unanimous with was that the courts will not shut down. The courts never shut down, we only adjusted drastically our operations,” Leonen said. 

Since the lockdown, courts have released more than 22,000 detainees to decongest jails. Courts have also conducted over 7,000 videoconferencing activities, he said.

‘Teach context of the letters of the law’

As the judiciary figures out a way to harmonize the law and the need for digitalization, Leonen urged the public to be more understanding of the courts.

He challenged the public to be more critical but also engage more constructively with the judiciary.

Lawyers should fully understand the dynamics of society, while law schools must look beyond the need to hurdle the bar examinations and teach law students, who are more attuned to digital technology, the “context of the letters of the law,” he also said.

“There are structural problems, but every judicial system exists within a structure of a society. Social justice is not only for the courts to solve, we are only attending on it from a certain approach. We all have a role to play,” Leonen said.

= = = = = =

PCIJ is a member of Court Appointments Watch PH. The CAW webinars and its coverage are made possible by the support of The Asia Foundation and Australian Government through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Access to PH Justice System Suffers Amid the Lockdown

The pandemic is laying bare lingering issues such as abuse of power, human rights violations, lack of access to the justice system, overcrowded jails and detention centers, lack of accountability, weaponization of the law, and impunity.

BY ANGELICA CARBALLO PAGO/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

TWO months of lockdown have put the Philippine justice system under more stress and farther away from the reach of ordinary citizens.

Lawyers from the multisectoral network Courts Appointments Watch PH pointed to illegal or warrantless arrests, maltreatment of quarantine violators, transgression of labor laws, and a crackdown on free expression during a webinar titled “Access to Justice Under a Pandemic Crisis” on Wednesday, May 19.

Lack of legal information and access to the complex and formalistic judicial system has long been a problem for the poor and those in far-flung areas, said lawyer Sheila Formento of Alternative Law Groups (ALG).

In 2017, the Philippines had 2,200 courts, equivalent to just one court for every 50,000 people, according to figures submitted to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

That same year, one prosecutor handled an average 166 cases and disposed of 145 cases, according to the National Prosecution Service. At the Public Attorney’s Office, which serves indigent litigants, each lawyer handled 465 cases in 2018.
 
Courts constrained

Posting bail for detainees became particularly difficult, even for those with money, because of limited court operations during the lockdown.

“Even those who scraped up money for bail ay nahirapan pa rin makapagpiyansa dahil sa dami ng requirements at nahihirapan din magbayad,” said lawyer Jose Manuel ‘Chel’ Diokno of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG).

(Even those who scraped up money for bail had a hard time because of so many requirements. It was also difficult to make payments.)

In some areas, bail could only be paid through state-owned Land Bank of the Philippines. Some branches were open just three times a week and for only half a day. Interbranch payments, ATM, and online banking services were not accepted.

In just a month after the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) was enforced, the Philippine National Police (PNP) arrested 31,363 individuals, 2,467 of which were still in detention. Police filed 24,248 cases of quarantine violations.

These cases were on top of the arrests and killings under the war on drugs, which continued despite the lockdown. 

Dahil sa limitadong operasyon ng mga korte, ‘yung mga pending na kaso ay lalong made-delay at dahil madadagdagan pa ng mga violation ng ECQ, mas lalo pa itong dadami,” Formento said.

(Because of limited operations of the courts, pending cases will be further delayed, and the case loads will swell as violations of the ECQ pile up.)

Food or bail money?

Lawyers from the multisectoral network said unchecked abuses and human rights violations by law enforcers, as well as delays in the resolution of cases, have contributed to growing distrust in the judicial system among the poor and disadvantaged.

In many communities, the choice was either to post bail or go hungry, and the poor would rather spend their money on food and other necessities than file a case against abusers, ALG said.

Online initiatives to help to those in need, including remote legal advice and electronic filing of cases and bail petitions, were hampered by poor internet connection in far-flung communities and even in urban poor areas, it said.

The group has developed information materials on individual rights at checkpoints and during arrests, as well as on court procedures and other relevant issuances. 

Isang malaking hamon ang ibinigay ng pandemic na ito sa ating justice system. Bagama’t may kakulangan sa pasilidad at sa kahandaan ng organisasyon, dapat siguraduhing ang hustisya ay gumugulong para sa lahat. Kailangan ng pagmamatyag nating lahat na siguruhin ito,” Formento said.

(The pandemic is a big challenge to our justice system. Even if there’s a lack of facilities and organizational preparedness, the wheels of justice need to turn for everyone. We have to keep watch to make sure of that.)

Unwarranted arrests

Diokno said the pandemic further underscored lingering issues such as abuse of power, human rights violations, lack of access to the justice system, overcrowded jails and detention centers, lack of accountability, weaponization of the law, and impunity.

He cited instances when rules on warrantless arrests were not observed during the quarantine.

By law, warrantless arrests are allowed only in three situations: 1) when the crime is committed in the presence of police or in flagrante delicto, 2) when in hot pursuit based on personal knowledge of who committed the crime and 3) when arresting escaped prisoners.

“Unfortunately, the power to arrest without warrant has been, in my opinion, misused,” said Diokno.

Warrantless arrests have been used against people over jokes, memes, satires, and even legitimate opinions and speech on social media. 

In Cebu, Bambi Beltran was arrested for posting a satirical Facebook status, and the Zambales teacher Ronnel Mas, who posted a reward to “kill” President Duterte on Twitter, was brought to Manila under questionable circumstances.

“This pandemic has exposed the flaws in our justice system,” said Diokno. 

Diokno also said it was not unusual to hear of a poor person being arrested for a simple quarantine violation and then detained for more than 20 days.

FLAG also received reports that some detainees were beaten up in crowded jails, where social distancing was next to impossible, he said. (See related story: Philippine Jails are a Covid-19 Time Bomb)

Labor rights take the backseat

Job security and labor rights have also suffered as workers bore the brunt of business losses due to the lockdown, said Marco Gojol of National Union of Workers in Hotel, Restaurant and Allied Industries-Sentro (Nuwhrain-Sentro). 

Gojol said many companies were poised to let go of employees with losses mounting due to extended closures. Many companies were unable to get government subsidies, he said. 

Ang isa sa pinakamalaking issues na kinakaharap ng workers ngayon ay income loss. Maraming kumpanya ang napilitang itigil ang operasyon at apektado ang maraming no-work, no-pay (na mga manggagawa),” Gojol said.

(One of the big issues faced by workers is income loss. Many companies have been forced to stop operations and workers in no-work, no-pay arrangements have been affected.) 

Many employers avoided stoppage by shifting to alternative modes of work, such as work-from-home and skeletal operations, but regular employees were prioritized over contractual employees, Gojol said.

In areas under the less restrictive general community quarantine, employees had a hard time going to work because of lack of public transportation. Safety remained a question mark in the absence of mass testing for the coronavirus disease, he said.

Moreover, union-busting did not stop during the pandemic, and some workers were dismissed for demanding safe workplaces and protocols, Gojol said.

Gojol said food and beverage workers from the Sentro labor centerfiled a notice of strike due to lack of safety protocols in their workplace on May 18. The notice was received but not docketed by the National Conciliation and Mediation Board, whose operations were put on standstill by the pandemic.

Gojol called on justice system stakeholders to help the labor sector find ways to protect the fundamental rights of workers amid the Covid-19 outbreak. 

He cited the Department of Labor and Employment’s Advisory 17, which encouraged workers and employees to negotiate temporary adjustments to wages and other benefits.

Habang may pandemya, inevitable ang labor-management disputes. Paano ia-address ng mga parties ang issues ngayong ‘new normal’ at paano magwo-work iyong mga dispute resolution mechanisms in this situation?” Gojol said. 

(Labor-management disputes are inevitable during the pandemic. How will the parties address these issues during the ‘new normal’ and how will dispute resolution mechanisms work in this situation?)

Media, free expression under threat

Karol Ilagan of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism said truth-telling and holding government to account have become even more important during the pandemic.

“The crisis is transforming the business of journalism from gathering information, reporting, research to production, publishing and broadcast. It comes at a time when our role in disseminating reliable and verifiable information and holding power to account has never been more critical,” she said. 

The government’s pandemic response, however, has been accompanied by threats to press freedom, freedom of expression, and journalists’ safety. Some of these measures were meant, ostensibly, to stem the spread of disinformation, Ilagan said.

Ilagan cited the provision penalizing fake news in the “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act,” which has been weaponized to punish or stifle dissenting voices, especially those on social media.

According to a report published by the Freedom for Media, Freedom for All netowrk, at least 60 individuals have been charged by government officials on the basis of this provision of the pandemic response law. (See related story: Journalists Struggle to Cover the Pandemic as Space for Media Freedom Shrinks)

In a jab against press freedom, ABS-CBN, the country’s biggest media network, was shut down on May 5 as lawmakers allowed its broadcast license to expire under pressure from the Duterte government.

 The shutdown has deprived Filipinos of access to information during the pandemic, and has jeopardized the livelihood of 11,000 network employees.

The Philippine Press Institute said over half of its members had ceased printing due to economic losses, and layoffs were expected in the next few months across media companies. ABS-CBN has said it would be forced to lay off workers by August without a new franchise.

“Reporters and newsrooms are under intense pressure during this pandemic, which is arguably the most complex story that we can cover right now. At stake is the public’s right to know at a time when the stakes are even higher,” Ilagan said.

While information about the pandemic has been made available online by various government agencies, access to other information about the inner workings of government has generally been delayed, she said.

The Presidential Communications Operations Office for a time has ordered the suspension of responding to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests during the quarantine period. Not all agencies cater to FOI requests, resulting in longer waiting times and delays for journalists looking for stories during the pandemic.

Bright spots still in sight

Ilagan said collaboration was key to tackling the difficulties and challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic as media and other stakeholders seek transparency and accountability in the legal system and the government.

“If we are to talk about solutions, there should be a concerted effort, particularly with the spread of disinformation. Alam nating aggressive ang nagpapakalat nito. We have to be more vigilant in providing verified and reliable info. And we have to work extra hard kasi nahihirapan tayo to do our job given the practical limitations,” Ilagan said.

Ria Nadora of the Association of Law Students of the Philippines urged the public to join in the national discourse for improved access to the justice system by using online spaces and social media.

“Not being silent about the matter helps in its own little way,” Nadora said.

Lyceum of the Philippines law dean Ma. Soledad Deriquito-Mawis, past president and chairperson of the Philippine Association of Law Schools, was optimistic of the solutions discussed during the webinar.

“This pandemic was not able to put a curse on our spirit in defending our freedoms and fighting for our rights. This pandemic did not put to sleep the Filipino spirit,” Mawis said.

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PCIJ is a member of Court Appointments Watch PH. The CAW webinars and its coverage are made possible by the support of The Asia Foundation.— PCIJ, May 2020

NUJP presses for justice on Gerry Ortega’s 9th death anniv

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) renewed its call for justice for broadcaster Gerry Ortega in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan on the ninth anniversary of his killing.

In a statement, the NUJP said it calls on the courts to resume trials against alleged masterminds in Ortega’s murders after the Court of Appeals (CA) reversed a 2018 ruling clearing former Palawan governor Joel Reyes, the primary suspect.

The group said the CA  ordered the Regional Trial Court in Puerto Princesa to “issue a warrant of arrest against the petitioner (Reyes) and to conduct proceedings in criminal case No. 26839 with purposeful dispatch” last November.

“Today, as we remember Doc Gerry, we call on the courts to let the wheels of justice finally turn, but not turn slowly,” the group said.

Hopes that the alleged brains behind Ortega’s murder would be held accountable had been dashed when co-accused former Coron, Palawan mayor Mario Reyes was granted bail in 2016 and his brother Joel was cleared of the murder charge and freed by the Court of Appeals in January 2018.

The former governor was back behind bars however after he was convicted of graft by the Sandiganbayan three weeks later.

The NUJP expressed optimism in a conviction as the gunman and all the members of the hit team were arrested, prosecuted, and convicted.

“In a rare instance, the hired killers named the alleged masterminds, who fled the country in 2012 soon after arrest warrants were issued against them but were captured in Thailand three years after and brought back to stand trial,” the NUJP said.

Ortega—also an environmentalist, public servant, good governance advocate and civic leader—had just finished hosting his program on radio station DWAR when shot dead.

The NUJP also noted that the victim’s family never wavered in their struggle for justice, adding it can do no less.

The NUJP is set to light candles for Ortega at the Sgt. Esguerra gate of ABS-CBN tonight, January 24, as it also calls for the renewal of the media company’s legislative franchise President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to block at the House of Representatives. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Ika-33 anibersaryo ng masaker sa Mendiola, ginunita

Nagtipon sa tulay ng Mendiola sa Maynila ang mga progresibong grupo sa pangunguna ng Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas upang gunitain ang masaker na pumatay sa 13 magsasaka noong 1987.

Kasabay ng panawagan ng hustisya para sa mga martir ng Mendiola ay ang pagpapatuloy ng usapang pangkapayapaan sa pagitan ng National Democratic Front of the Philippines at Government of the Republic of the Philippines na ang susunod na adyenda ay ang Comprehensive Agreement on Socio-Economic Reforms kabilang na ang tunay na reporma sa lupa para sa mga magsasaka. (Bidyo ni Joseph Cuevas/ Kodao)

NDFP: After successful ceasefire, time to release peace consultants

The National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) seeks the release of its detained peace consultants and staff as a goodwill measure to boost chances of peace talks resumption this month. 

Along with the success of the ongoing ceasefire between the Rodrigo Duterte administration and the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), NDFP chief political consultant Jose Maria Sison said it is widely expected that the government ought to release consultants who are under detention.

“The release of the political prisoners on humanitarian grounds will ensure the success of the formal meeting to resume the GRP-NDFP peace negotiations within January,” Sison said.

He said the consultants are being detained in violation of the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees that prohibits harassment, arrest and detention against personnel of both the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the NDFP negotiating panels.

Long-time NDFP peace consultants Vicente Ladlad, Adelberto Silva, Renante Gamara, Rey Claro Casambre, Frank Fernandez, Cleofe Lagtapon, Esterlita Suaybaguio, and Leopoldo Caloza as well as NDFP panel staff Alex and Winona Birondo were arrested in succession after negotiations broke down in November 2017. 

All had been similarly charged with illegal possession of firearms, ammunition, and explosives.

Consultant Rafael Baylosis was the first to be arrested in January 2018 but was released by the Quezon City Regional Trial Court a year later due to lack of evidence.

Consultants Eduardo Sarmiento and Ferdinand Castillo were arrested by previous administrations.

NDFP consultant Lora T. Manipis has been reported missing since February 24, 2018, last seen with her husband Jeruel B. Domingo in Kidapawan City.

Manipis joined other missing NDFP consultants believed abducted by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, such as Leo Velasco, Rogelio Calubad, Prudencio Calubid, NDFP staff members Philip Limjoco, Leopoldo Ancheta, and Federico Intise. 

Meanwhile, youngest NDFP consultant Randy Felix P. Malayao was assassinated in Aritao, Nueva Vizcaya by still unidentified gunmen in January 2019. Another peace consultant, Sotero Llamas was killed in Tabaco, Albay in May 2006. 

Sison said Duterte should also immediately release sick and elderly political prisoners on humanitarian grounds.

“As regards the rest of the political prisoners, they can look forward to the general amnesty that is already slated for proclamation upon the approval of the Interim Peace Agreement (IPA),” Sison said.

Reaffirming past agreements

Sison said the formal meeting to resume the peace negotiations has the task of reaffirming all previous joint agreements since The Hague Joint Declaration of 1992 and setting the agenda for negotiating and approving the Interim Peace Agreement 

The IPA has three components: 1. the general amnesty and release of all political prisoners; 2. approval of the articles of CASER (Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms) on land reform and national industrialization; and 3. coordinated unilateral ceasefires, Sison said.

“The CASER will benefit the entire Filipino people, including families of adherents to the GRP and NDFP, through land reform and the generation of jobs under the program of national industrialization. These provide the economic and social substance for a just peace,” Sison said.

He added that a resumption of formal negotiations shall effectively supersede all Duterte issuance that terminated and prevented peace negotiations since November 2017. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

December 19 and the quest for justice

ON DECEMBER 19, the day set by the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 221 for the promulgation of its much-awaited verdict on the Ampatuan massacre, it will be 10 years and 25 days since the killings occurred in Maguindanao on November 23, 2009.

Let that sink in: a decade of injustice. Ten years since 58 men and women, of whom 32 were journalists and media workers, were brutally killed in the worst election-related violence in the Philippines and the worst attack on journalists in history. These are millions of moments when swift decisive justice could have been served on the alleged perpetrators of the crime and its masterminds.

On December 19, the Filipino public expects nothing less than a conviction from Quezon City RTC Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes. But the Ampatuan case is one more indication of the fact that in the Philippines, a verdict in the lower courts even on a patently heinous crime will take at least a decade. It proves that impunity thrives for the powerful, while for the victims of crimes such as the Ampatuan massacre, a decade can pass without attaining justice.

A decade has indeed passed but the conditions that led to the Ampatuan massacre remain: political dynasties and patronage are still alive, paramilitary groups have not been dismantled, and the Ampatuans’ collusion with the administration — Arroyo then and Duterte now — still persists.

But in this climate when attacks against free expression and the press escalate relentlessly – from the killings of journalists to illegal arrests to online attacks – we should remain undaunted. Despite the stark lesson on how elusive justice is from the Ampatuan massacre case, journalists, activists, and advocates must not only soldier on, but also up the ante in the fight to shatter the culture of impunity that has enveloped the nation.

A conviction of the Ampatuans would be considered an initial victory against impunity. An acquittal, on the other hand, would spell death to press freedom.

December 19 will not only underscore how elusive justice is in our country. It should also be a time for all of us to renew our commitment to continue fighting for it no matter the cost, and no matter how long.

On December 19, let us express our solidarity with the families of the Ampatuan massacre victims and register our resounding call: Justice for the 58 massacre victims. End Impunity. Convict the Ampatuans.

* Pooled editorial of the members of the AlterMidya Network, a national organization of independent media outfits in the Philippines.

Ampatuan Massacre promulgation of verdict will be broadcast live–SC

The promulgation of judgement on the Ampatuan Massacre trial shall be broadcast live on December 19, the Supreme Court (SC) ruled Tuesday, December 10.

The High Court shall allow two People’s Television (PTV) cameras inside the courtroom which other media outfits could hook into, SC assistant court administrator and public information office chief Brian Keith Hosaka said.

Citing space limitations, the Court also decided it would only allow a limited number of reporters inside the court who would not be allowed to bring their own cameras, smart phones and other video and audio recording equipment inside.

The SC Public Information Office shall prepare a list of “accredited media” to be allowed inside the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology compound in Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City.

The High Tribunal decided on the petition for live coverage filed last week by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

“The live coverage/streaming of the promulgation would allow the families and relatives of the 58 victims who may not be able to attend the promulgation in Metro Manila to hear live the reading of the court’s decision on the killing of their relatives,” the media groups wrote Supreme Court Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta.

Government communication and media offices also asked to be allowed to cover the event.

Before the groups’ petition, the Court, through Hosaka, wrote to PTV requesting for airtime and technical support, including cameras and video footage that would be provided to other media groups, for the live coverage of the verdict set on December 19

“Because of the paramount public interest involved in this case, the Supreme Court, which is overseeing the matter, would like to have live television coverage of the proceedings,” SC Assistant Court Administrator and Public Information Office chief Hosaka told PTV. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)