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Media groups rally behind AlterMidya; condemn ‘callous, dangerous, evidence-less red-tagging’

Media institutions defended a network of independent news outfits from government allegations it is a Communist “propaganda machinery.”

In a statement following a Senate hearing last week, the country’s most respected media institutions expressed support to the People’s Alternative Media Network (AlterMidya) and denounced the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC)’s repeated allegations against the group.

“We strongly condemn the NTF-ELCAC’s callous, dangerous, and evidence-less red-tagging of the Altermidya network,” the media organizations said.

The institutions include the Asian Center for Journalism at the Ateneo de Manila University, the University of the Philippines Department of Journalism, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, the Consortium on Democracy and Disinformation, the Foundation for Media Alternatives, MindaNews, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and the Philippine Press Institute as well as media outfits Rappler and VERA Files.

At the third hearing of the Senate Committee on National Defense and Security, Peace, Unification and Reconciliation on red-tagging last December 1, NTF-ELCAC executive director Allen Capuyan said AlterMidya outfits were part of the Communist Party of the Philippines’ “propaganda machinery.”

The media institutions however said Capuyan’s allegation is “a baseless blanket statement… provided without proof, presented as an out-of-context info-graphic, fraught with deadly consequences.”

“Red-tagging, especially without credible evidence of wrongdoing, is a devious form of disinformation. Other institutions red-tagged have been systematically harassed or demonized; other individuals, especially women, have been trolled, detained, assaulted, even killed,” the signatories said.

The institutions said the Altermidya network offers independent readings of national issues and events that a functioning democracy should welcome as part of a healthy pluralism in the public discourse.

“It is admirably committed to reporting on corruption, human rights abuses, and environmental issues, as well as the plight of farmers and workers. And some of its institutional members, including but not limited to Bulatlat.com and Northern Dispatch, have a well-deserved national reputation for high-quality journalism: hard-hitting, yes, but also rooted in the facts,” their statement said.

The media organizations said the AlterMidya network has done its journalism despite great risk, including death threats and a massive distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack.

“We therefore view this latest act of red-tagging with the utmost concern. It renders these community journalists even more vulnerable to abuse and violence, at the exact time we need more of their journalism,” they said.

‘Small but courageous’

In an earlier statement, the NUJP called on fellow journalists and “all Filipinos who cherish freedom and democracy” to support AlterMidya “against the utterly malicious and clearly criminal red-tagging by security officials.”

The NUJP said the government’s “baseless accusations” against the alternative media are nothing new but the level of vilification from the Duterte administration through NTF-ELCAC indicates it is bent on silencing contrary views and voices to force conformity on the Filipino people.

The NUJP said the latest assault on the alternative media is similar to the silencing of ABS-CBN and the continued attacks on Rappler and other critical and independent news organizations.

The union said AlterMidya’s “small but courageous news outfits” play a vital role in serving the people’s right to know through reportage and analysis that provide fresh perspectives to often under-reported social issues.

These issues include land reform, human rights, the environment and injustice as well as oft-neglected sectors such as farmers, small fisher folk, the urban poor, laborers and indigenous people.

“The otherwise unheard or ignored voices they bring to the national conversation strengthen our democracy by helping shape a fuller, more accurate picture of our society, of our people.

This, of course, is what those who seek to impose their will on us fear most and why they seek to silence not only the alternative media but independent Philippine media as a whole,” the NUJP said.

“It has always been a matter of pride for the NUJP to have the alternative media with us and count some of their best journalists as leaders of the organization,” NUJP said.

‘Will not be muzzled’

Alternative news outfit Bulatlat.com in an editorial said it will not be muzzled by the government’s latest attempt to discredit independent journalism in the Philippines.

Bulatlat  said President Duterte had been attempting to picture independent journalists as

“enemies of the state for exposing the administration’s gross human rights record, and lately its inefficiency in handling the COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermath of recent strong typhoons.”

“Our allegiance is to the truth. That such truth hurts those in power only affirms even more the relevance of independent and fearless journalism. We in Bulatlat will continue to perform our tasks, alongside our colleagues in the alternative and dominant media, because the Filipino people deserve no less,” the country’s oldest existing online news outfit said.

Mindanao’s Davao Today also said it is concerned with the “malicious and baseless attempt to taint the integrity of Davao Today in its role as the voice of the Mindanao community.”

“In a national landscape where dissenting voices are increasing and systematically silenced, independent and community-sourced bearers of information have become our last stronghold of democratic practice. Community journalism should flourish to serve the community as Davao Today has been doing,” the outfit said in a statement.

AlterMidya said it sees the latest attacks against itself and its members as a form of intimidation to force critical journalists into silence amid growing discontent among the people due to the Duterte government’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

AlterMidya said it will pursue legal action against NTF-ELCAC’s “malicious smear campaign.” # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

For two mothers, justice harder to reach amid pandemic

Two mothers share how it feels to be prisoners of misery. On top of the uncertainties brought by the Covid-19 pandemic, Marites Asis agonizes over how the justice system has treated her daughter and her late granddaughter, baby River, while Barbara Ruth Angeles has to endure the loss of a daughter to sickness while seeking justice for her son, who’s been in jail for months.

By Aie Balagtas See / Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

The wheels of justice are grinding exceedingly slow for Marites Asis and Barbara Ruth Angeles.

Marites is the mother of Reina Mae “Ina” Nasino, an urban poor leader who was arrested in Manila in November 2019. Ina learned she was pregnant weeks before her transfer to Manila City Jail and gave birth to baby River on July 1, only to be separated from her newborn after a month.

Marites became worried not only over Ina’s freedom and safety, but also over baby River’s health. River, who was dependent on formula milk and donations from the milk bank, was confined at the Philippine General Hospital after contracting pneumonia in September. Baby River’s death sparked public outrage as Ina was not allowed to visit the hospital and was given only six hours to say goodbye to her baby.

Painter Barbara Ruth Angeles has a similar story. It’s been months since she last saw her son Inno, who was arrested on what she said were trumped-up drug charges in Quezon City in 2018. To add to her misery, Inno’s older and only sister died of bladder problems in August.

Inno was not able to say goodbye.

Barbara Ruth has yet to properly mourn the sudden passing of her eldest child as she is busy earning a living while finding ways to free Inno. Barbara Ruth is also busy taking care of her 12-year-old granddaughter, who is now an orphan.

Marites and Barbara Ruth are free but mired in misery that could only be cured by the delivery of justice.

Here are their stories, in their own words.

Marites Asis, illustrated by Alexandra Paredes. (PCIJ)

Justice is heavy handed for Reina Mae Nasino and baby River

By Marites Asis (as told to Aie Balagtas See)

I found out that my daughter Ina was pregnant the same time Covid-19 struck. I felt the weight of heaven crash down on me.

I couldn’t give an interview without crying. At night, I even cry myself to sleep. You’d think I was crazy.

I learned about my daughter’s pregnancy in February, a few weeks before the police were set to transfer her to Manila City Jail.

That’s why when lockdowns were imposed, I was anxious. You need social distancing, but they’re cramped in a dormitory that houses 111 people.

It seemed risky for my daughter to be pregnant and at the same time detained in jail, where she could catch the virus.

I was asleep when Ina was arrested [on Nov. 5, 2019]. Someone went to my house at about 5 a.m. and told me about Ina’s arrest. The person said she was taken to the CIDG (Criminal Investigation and Detection Group) office in Manila Police District (MPD). In short, I rushed to MPD around 5 a.m.

I was hysterical.

I went to Ate Vicky, my older sister, the woman who raised all of us, including Ina. We consider her our mother.

Ate Vicky said we should go to MPD. At MPD headquarters, however, they did not allow us to see Ina immediately.

Investigators were asking them if they really owned those guns.

I was furious.

The police planted evidence against Ina. I know my daughter. They planted guns and grenades. During the arrest, the cops covered their faces with pillows. Who in his right mind would do that to our youth?

It hurts so much to see your child in jail.

You couldn’t even go out because of coronavirus. You’re stuck at home. Anxious and worried.

Before coronavirus hit, I would visit her in jail every day. I never missed a visit until visitation rights were cancelled last March.

With the lockdown in place, I felt helpless.

I always wonder how my daughter is doing. Is she eating well? Can she take a shower in private or do they take showers in groups?

I pity my daughter.

Because of the virus, we could not see each other, especially when she was still pregnant. Covid-19 exacerbated my pain.

She said maybe I could see her again in October.

It’s difficult. It’s really, really difficult. I couldn’t sleep at night. I would always think of her. She would talk to us through video calls, and we were happy to see her tummy grow.

But I felt so guilty. I couldn’t take care of my own daughter.

Ina was supposed to give birth on July 10 but she gave birth nine days early, on July 1.

I didn’t even see her at the hospital.

I was asleep. A jail personnel called me at midnight. She instructed me to go to Fabella Hospital as Ina was about to give birth.

I rushed to Ate Vicky once again. Together we went to Fabella, hoping we could be by my daughter’s side on that important day.

When we got there, the hospital administration said visitors were not allowed because of their Covid-19 protocols.

Anyway, the hospital said Ina had given birth.

Ate Vicky and I went back to Fabella on July 3 to bring diapers and water for the baby.

The security guards said my daughter was still there. They didn’t allow us to see her, so we asked if they could hand the package over to Ina.

On our way home, about noontime, Ate Vicky’s phone rang. It was Ina. She said the baby was crying because she could not produce milk. The baby was hungry.

It baffled us because we thought she was still in the hospital. Ina said they returned to jail on July 2.

No one told us. We just found out. That gave us another bout of sharp pain.

The security guards played us for fools!

We attended to Ina first. When we reached the city jail, we were told the baby was already given formula milk.

Then we stormed Fabella Hospital to confront the guards. We demanded that they return the diapers and water. Those belong to us.

They didn’t even want to return the water and diapers, so I complained at the hospital’s information center.

I last saw Ina when she handed the baby to us on [Aug. 13].

We barely met her. We were not supposed to see Ina. I just asked the warden if I could have a glimpse of my daughter.

How do I feel? I’m filled with pain. I can witness the suffering of my child.

I felt that Ina and my granddaughter did not want to be separated from each other.

How I feel about Ina is the same with how she feels about my granddaughter.

I don’t know why they treated her that way. As a mother, I felt hurt. I don’t know how to explain it. She is not convicted yet.

It was painful to watch them [policemen and jail guards] surround my daughter. It’s okay if they made her wear PPE (personal protective equipment) because she needed to go back to jail. But to handcuff her? As if it’s not a wake.

I have yet to move on.

I skip social media posts that remind me of what happened because they bring back memories of when she was handcuffed at the wake. She was looking at her child. She was not able to come close to her infant’s coffin.

Then there’s the memory of men with high-powered guns barging in to inspect the room and the toilet because they were afraid of getting outfoxed.

You see? They did not give us the chance to bond.

That day, I ran out of tears to cry. All I could do was call them out.

I didn’t have any tears left to cry after seeing my daughter’s situation.

It was difficult to cry because I was enraged. I asked them to leave the room because we didn’t need guns there.

They didn’t have to guard the burial. There were so many of them that they outnumbered the mourners.

I tried to appeal to their hearts. I told them we knew it was an order and we couldn’t do anything. Just the same I hoped they realized it was a burial and a mother would be separated from her child.

I only wish they had thought of that.

During our last conversation at the cemetery, Ina told me: “Ma, it’s okay to put the baby inside the niche.”

Ina held my hand twice: during the wake and during the burial.

She told me: “Ma, give me your hand.” She held it tight.

She was trying to tell me that I needed to be strong. I told her: “Be strong, we will fight back.”

Postscript:

I’m okay. But it’s not easy to forget because the trauma is still there. I can go to work now.

Ina said it’s not yet the end of everything.

I filed a legal complaint over what they did during the baby’s wake and burial. How will I attain justice if I don’t complain? This should serve them a lesson because they must not treat other people the way they treated us.

Baby River died of pneumonia on Oct. 9. The court gave Reina Mae a couple of three-hour furloughs to bid her child goodbye. The first was to visit the wake, the second was to bury her child.

Not even an inch of her skin was able to touch River’s coffin. She was made to wear a full hazmat suit during the visits because of the threat of Covid-19. She was in handcuffs most of the time and was surrounded by heavily armed government forces.

Their family was never given a chance to grieve.

Barbara Ruth Angeles, illustrated by Alexandra Paredes.

Legal shortcuts in the drug war:From ‘palit-ulo’ to ‘amin-laya’

By Barbara Ruth Angeles (as told to Aie Balagtas See)

My son Inno will enter into a plea-bargain agreement. I don’t have any choice left. I have to take him out of jail.

My son does not want it, but I have no choice. How else are we going to set him free? That was why we opted for “amin-laya” (plea bargain).

The advice came from lawyers and BJMP (Bureau of Jail Management and Penology) personnel. They said it’s his first offense anyway.

I’m worried for my son, of course, as entering into a plea bargain means having a permanent criminal record. It’s similar to being convicted already, although he is innocent.

But my son’s case has been pending in court for two years. Within that period we only had about four hearings even if the court had released a monthly schedule.

Reset. Reset. Reset.

Since my son couldn’t prove his innocence in court, I told him that once he’s free, it’s up to him to prove to himself that he’s not what the government had accused him of.

Besides, the cops offered this solution to us before, and they promised us they wouldn’t oppose it.

I can take better care of my son if he’s with me. I can tell him, “Don’t go out, don’t go with these people.”

I just want this problem to end. We’re all suffering because of it.

Then, there’s the pandemic. The BJMP does not tell us the exact number of inmates infected with Covid-19. It’s difficult because it’s congested there.

Actually, I had to take risks and buy my son a P15,000 kubol (hut) so he could have his own space, and that’s just plywood about a quarter of a meter in size.

It is very expensive inside city jails. You’re aware of this: If you are poor, you will starve to death inside our jails.

Since visitation rights are suspended, my son and I communicate with each other through phone calls. Imagine this: to get in touch with me, he needs to buy call cards worth P100 for P300. The BJMP asks you to buy the call cards from them.

I won’t tell you the exact amount that I spend on my son but his budget for a week is my budget for two weeks.

I don’t know what else could happen. That’s why I said, “Son, just plead guilty.”

My son was arrested on May 3 (2018). Arrests of drug suspects spiked during that period because of the drug war “quota”. I learned about that so-called quota from the BJMP personnel. They blamed it for their population boom.

Go back to the day Galas police station was raided over an extortion case. That’s how we learned Inno was there.

At first, we had no idea that Inno had been arrested. We looked for him in barangay halls and police stations. We reported him as missing because we couldn’t reach his phone.

I kept crying.

My daughter and I searched everywhere. I thought he was killed because deaths related to bike theft were rampant those days, so we scoured hospitals and funeral parlors.

I posted about our search for Inno on Facebook. One of my school batchmates advised me to report it to 8888. I reported it to the Duterte hotline 8888 but it was not able to help us.

On May 4, Galas Police Station was raided over an extortion case involving its anti-narcotics team.

A police investigator called me and said: “Go to Galas Police Station immediately. Your son is here. Bring food and clothes.”

I was shocked. How did he end up there?

No one entertained me at the police station until I lost my cool.

Someone from GMA News told me to get a good lawyer.

At that time, hiring a private lawyer cost P300,000. Our case got delayed because we couldn’t find one. Some were too old. His grandmother found someone but I think he’s from Aklan.

We couldn’t grasp what was happening. We were desperate to find a lawyer. It was mental torture. We weren’t used to this. It was the first time someone in the family got involved in a court case.

The most enraging part was my son didn’t violate any law.

You know, initially, the police didn’t even have a record of his arrest.

I talked to detainees and some policemen at Galas. I learned that the SAID (Station Anti-Illegal Drugs Division) cops were supposed to kill Inno as a replacement for big fish that they’re extorting money from.

The policemen in Galas said my son was intended for “palit-ulo.” (Palit-ulo, which literally means head-swapping, is a scheme in which a drug suspect gets freedom in exchange for ratting out on his or her suppliers.)

They said it was for a “zero-zero.” You know zero-zero?

That meant they would kill him.

The policemen tortured my son.

I have evidence, including the medico-legal report, and X-ray and CT scan results.

At the hospital, the doctor said he had fractured ribs. They also saw a “metallic forensic” in his left leg.

The doctor did not want him to leave, but Galas police did not allow him to be operated on. Despite his fractures and injuries, Galas turned him over to the city jail.

We lost the chance to have him treated. His wounds eventually healed in jail.

You asked how I’m doing?

It’s the first time someone asked me that question.

Well, I’m not… I’m not okay. I try to do my normal routine but emotionally, no, I’m not okay. My daughter died in August while my son is in jail. She’s my eldest and the only one I could rely on to deal with this problem.

We were able to get hold of the CCTV [showing Inno’s illegal arrest] because of her.

I still couldn’t accept that my daughter had passed away.

Inno was not able to say goodbye. They had not seen each other for two years.

She was sick but was not confined. Her resistance was down and I was afraid that she might catch the virus in the hospital.

My daughter left behind three children. The eldest child, an 11-year-old girl, does not have a father. I’m taking care of her.

My granddaughter is already worried that her life will fall apart if something happens to me. I told her, nothing’s going to happen to me because I still have a purpose in life.

I have faith in the Lord.

I never questioned God for everything that I’m going through. I know he will not give me these trials if I cannot overcome them.

I’m trying to be strong for my son and for my granddaughter. If I falter, who would be strong for them?

But it’s difficult.

Postscript:

I think my daughter is guiding me. I feel better now. I started painting again 40 days after her death.

I used to paint with dark colors, colors that you can associate with death. This time, I’m using positive and vibrant colors. My artwork seems alive.

Do I have peace of mind?

No. I can only have peace of mind when my son is finally with me. –PCIJ, December 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.

Inspired by The Marshall Project’s Life Inside, Marites’ and Barbara’s stories are part of PCIJ’s series on the criminal justice system, which includes first-person accounts from ​current and former detainees and their family members​.

Kodao publishes PCIJ reports as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Lifeline needed: Small businesses struggle amid lockdowns

This five-episode podcast was produced by UrbanisMO.PH and Young Public Servants with support from Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Philippines, International Center for Innovation, Transformation, and Excellence in Governance (INCITEGov) and PCIJ.

BY AARON MALLARI / Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

What’s the big picture? Small businesses continue to reel from the effects of community quarantine measures on the domestic economy, which is mired in recession. While some businesses have adapted, for instance, through the wider use of online delivery services, a granular response is needed to address specific needs of sectors as low-income families and LGBT enterprises. 

Why it matters: Micro, small and medium enterprises are the lifeblood of the economy and employ more than 90 percent of all workers. Giving them a lifeline means making sure millions of workers continue to earn a living amid lockdowns and quarantines.

What are the facts? Charlene Tan and Mabi David of Good Food Community talk about the effects of the pandemic on farmers and local food systems, and local government responses to address these challenges, while Meann Ignacio speaks from her experiences in a cooperative that helps urban communities continue to earn a living. Ronn Astillas of the LGBT Chamber of Commerce discuss how LGBT companies are coping with the new normal of doing business. 

The bottomline: More than the usual ‘ayuda’ or cash and relief assistance, local governments need to be more proactive in helping micro, small and medium enterprises survive the pandemic.

Covid-19 in the Bangsamoro (Part 2 of 2)

This five-episode podcast was produced by UrbanisMO.PH and Young Public Servants with support from Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Philippines, International Center for Innovation, Transformation, and Excellence in Governance (INCITEGov) and PCIJ.

BY AARON MALLARI WITH ICA FERNANDEZ / Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

What’s the big picture? Physical distancing is crucial to containing the spread of coronavirus. But minimum health standards are difficult to enforce in evacuation centers for internally displaced persons (IDPs), such residents who fled Marawi City during the 2017 siege. In Part 2 of this two-part series titled ‘Covid-19 outside NCR: The Experience of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao,’ local leaders and stakeholders point to ways to ease the plight of IDPs and make sure they are also safe from Covid-19.

Why it matters: Internally displaced persons, stuck in cramped evacuation centers and with little or no access to food, water, sanitation and healthcare, are significantly vulnerable to the coronavirus, and the risk of outbreaks is high.

What are the facts? Bangsamoro parliament member Zia Alonto Adiong and Asrifah Mamutuk of the Lanao del Sur provincial government discuss the aftermath of the Marawi siege more than three years and a pandemic later, while NGO leader Fatima ‘Shalom’ Pir Allian calls attention to the plight of displaced Bangsamoro people outside the region.

The bottomline: The government needs to exert extra effort and devote more resources to help the ‘bakwit’ and prevent the pandemic from severely exacerbating the problem.

Covid-19 in the Bangsamoro (Part 1 of 2)

This five-episode podcast was produced by UrbanisMO.PH and Young Public Servants with support from Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Philippines, International Center for Innovation, Transformation, and Excellence in Governance (INCITEGov) and PCIJ.

BY AARON MALLARI WITH ICA FERNANDEZ / Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

What’s the big picture? The concentration of Covid-19 cases in Metro Manila and surrounding regions means the pandemic response might be uneven across the country. But places like the Bangsamoro autonomous region need extra resources to control the outbreak, and ill-conceived programs aren’t helping. Bangsamoro leaders, for instance, have to deal with returning overseas workers, some of them asymptomatic virus carriers, who were repatriated from their host countries and shipped back to their home provinces under the ‘Balik-Probinsya’ and ‘Hatid Probinsya’ programs. This is Part 1 of a two-part series titled ‘Covid-19 outside NCR: The Experience of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.’

Why it matters: The ability of localities to absorb the influx of returning migrant workers without compromising the health of their home communities is crucial to ensuring the effectiveness of the national response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

What are the facts? Bangsamoro ministers Naguib Sinarimbo and Laisa Masuhud Alamia discuss how the pandemic response has become one of the region’s biggest challenges to date, as it transitions to a parliamentary government that is autonomous, but somewhat still reliant on the national government. Prof. Rufa Guiam, an expert on governance and inclusion, weighs in on how the pandemic and the Bangsamoro government’s ability to deal with it is crucial to the peace process. 

The bottomline: Covid-19 is a test of governance for the Bangsamoro autonomous region, whose success is essential to achieving peace and prosperity in Mindanao.

Duterte’s SALNs secret; PCIJ makes public wealth disclosures of all presidents since Cory

With the Office of the Ombudsman’s latest memorandum circular, SALN access is now restricted across all branches of government.

By Karol Ilagan and Stanley Buenafe Gajete/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

For the past 30 years, the Office of the Ombudsman has made readily available the wealth disclosures of Philippine presidents and other government officials. Until now.

The Ombudsman, with its Memorandum Circular 1, has blocked public access as well as public inspection at reasonable hours of the SALN, for the first time since the law mandating public disclosure of these records was passed in 1989.

President Rodrigo Duterte’s 2018 and 2019 statements of assets, liabilities and net worth or SALN should have been made public within 10 days from the day they were filed. The Ombudsman initially rebuffed repeated requests by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) to obtain copies, claiming that it was still revising the guidelines for public access to the SALNs of government officials.

More than a year since that review started in May last year, the Ombudsman finally came up with its new guidelines: the anti-corruption body is no longer allowing the public to see copies of the SALNs.

The Ombudsman circular states that copies of the SALN may only be provided to a requester if:

  • he or she is the declarant or the person who filed the SALN or the duly authorized representative of the declarant;
  • there is a court order; or
  • the request is made by the Ombudsman’s field investigation units.

Of the six SALN custodians, the Office of the Ombudsman is now among four that have the most restrictive rules in SALN access. (See sidebar: A citizen’s guide to where and how to get a SALN)

PCIJ also requested the Office of the President to release Duterte’s SALN. After all, Malacañang has made SALNs public in the past. We made the first request on June 21, 2019 and followed up repeatedly. The response? Ask the Office of the Ombudsman, which we had already done.

For the past year, repeated requests by the PCIJ for the President’s wealth statement have been tossed back and forth between the Office of the Ombudsman and the Office of the President. The issuance of the Ombudsman’s circular now essentially makes Duterte’s SALNs secret.

The latest batch of SALNs, covering the year 2019, is supposed to be filed by officials on or before April 30. But because of the Covid-19 quarantine, the deadline was extended to June 30. Once filed, these records must be made available to the public in 10 working days after filing or around July 15.

As the Ombudsman restricts public access to SALNs of the presidents and other officials, we are releasing for the first time the SALNs of all past presidents since 1989, when the law requiring the public disclosure of asset statements was passed.

These documents show that President Duterte is breaking a long tradition of presidents making their annual wealth disclosures public year after year, often even without a formal request from the press or the public to do so.

All SALNs since Corazon C. Aquino’s first statement in 1989 to Duterte’s 2017 SALN can be downloaded here. The 2017 disclosure was the second Duterte filed as president and the last that was made publicly available.

Chart 1. The declared wealth of Philippine presidents from Corazon Aquino to Rodrigo Duterte can be found in this folder. Infographic: Alexandra Paredes

Other branches of government have also become more restrictive of access to wealth disclosures. In fact, only two of the six repositories (Malacañang Records Office and the Civil Service Commission) provide access to full copies of SALNs without the need for the declarants’ approval. When President Duterte took office, he promised a more transparent government, but that has not happened.

Last year, the PCIJ published a story based on all of Duterte’s SALN filings since he was Davao City mayor. We found that his wealth increased from less than P1 million in 1998 to nearly P29 million in 2017. We also reported “big spikes” in the wealth of the president’s children, Sara and Paolo Duterte, based on their SALNs.

The president was not pleased. “What we earned outside is none of your business actually,” he said at a public event in April last year. ‘Yung may mga negosyo kami, mga law office kami — what the goddamn sh*t?”

Chart 2. In April 2019, PCIJ reported how President Rodrigo Duterte and his children, Sara and Paolo, have all consistently grown richer over the years, even on the modest salaries they have received for various public posts, and despite the negligible retained earnings reflected in the financial statements of the companies they own or co-own. Infographic: Alexandra Paredes

When we asked for the president’s 2018 SALN the following month, the Office of the Ombudsman stalled. Our request for the 2019 filing in August 2020 was also ignored until the Ombudsman released its circular a month later.

Three weeks after assuming office, Duterte signed Executive Order 2 that required the full public disclosure of many public documents. The order specifically said, “all public officials are reminded of their obligation to file and make available SALNs for scrutiny.”

Contrary to the spirit of the order and the requirements of a 1989 law, Congress and the courts have recently issued new guidelines restricting access. The Office of the Ombudsman, the uber custodian of SALNs, has changed its rules several times with varying degrees of openness.

Prior to the latest guidelines restricting public access, all requests must be approved by Ombudsman Samuel Martires. Martires, who belongs to the president’s San Beda law college fraternity, is a two-time Duterte appointee, first to the Supreme Court in 2017 and second to the Office of the Ombudsman in 2018.

Republic Act (RA) 6713, also known as the SALN Law, says that the actual SALNs should be open for public inspection at reasonable hours, available for copying after 10 working days from the time they are filed, and available to the public for 10 years from receipt of the record. These statements contain detailed information on an official’s real and personal properties, loans and other liabilities, and net worth as well as business interests, financial connections and relatives in government. (See sidebar: What’s in a SALN anyway?)

In a recent budget hearing, Ombudsman Martires said his office had stopped lifestyle checks on officials because RA 6713 supposedly set “unclear” standards.

Throughout the world, wealth disclosures are seen as an important anti-corruption tool. “The requirement that public officials declare their income and assets can help deter the use of public office for private gain,” said the World Bank. “Income and asset disclosure systems can provide a means to detect and manage potential conflicts of interest, and can assist in the prevention, detection, and prosecution of illicit enrichment by public officials.”

The SALN serves as a tool for transparency as well as prosecution as the law allows for lifestyle checks, law professor Antonio La Viña said. The wealth record offers a way to make sure that officials “do not benefit, do not increase their wealth because of their work (in government).” Through the SALN, one can track the way officials’ wealth changed over the years in which they were in power, he explained.

La Viña has reservations about everyone getting a hold of the SALNs, but said the Ombudsman circular was very restrictive when it excluded journalists from getting the records. “The media should always be given full access or at least access to the most important part of the SALN, the summary part,” he said.

The law professor surmised that the Ombudsman restricted access because the SALN had been “abused, misused, weaponized.”

To La Viña, however, those in power are the ones “weaponizing” the SALN to go after their enemies.

“President [Benigno] Aquino [III] used it against [Chief Justice Renato] Corona. President Duterte or the people of President Duterte — [Solicitor General Jose] Calida — used it against [Chief Justice Maria Lourdes] Sereno.”

The SALN was key to the ouster of the two chief justices. In 2012, Congress impeached and ousted former Chief Justice Renato Corona. In 2018, the Supreme Court removed through quo warranto proceedings Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, a critic of Duterte and his administration’s war on drugs. Both Corona and Sereno were accused of failing to fully disclose their wealth in their SALNs.

The PCIJ has also used asset statements to hold presidents accountable for the wealth they have accumulated while in public office. Without access to the full SALNs, this kind of investigative reporting becomes very difficult.

In 2000, we exposed the “millions, mansions and mistresses” of President Joseph Estrada, showing that what he had spent on his lavish lifestyle exceeded the net worth declared in his SALNs.

Chart 3. In July 2000, PCIJ reported how former President Joseph Estrada did not declare his participation in about a dozen companies in which he and his wife were major investors and board members. His wealth disclosures neither gave an idea of the magnitude of the business interests that he and his families were engaged in. Infographic: Alexandra Paredes

The PCIJ also reported on the murky finances of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2009 and the spike in the net worth of Benigno Aquino III in 2011. All this reporting relied on SALNs as well.

Chart 4. In August 2009, PCIJ found that the declared wealth of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had increased the fastest, and by amounts much bigger, than the combined net growth of the three presidents before her – Corazon Aquino, Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada. Infographic: Alexandra Paredes
Chart 5. In July 2011, PCIJ reported that President Benigno Aquino III’s wealth had grown nearly three times, or from only P15.44 million as of December 2009 to P55 million as of December 2010. Infographic: Alexandra Paredes

La Viña warned that restricting SALN access to the media might increase impunity among corrupt officials. Before, corrupt officials hid illicit wealth or did not put it in their SALNs. Now, given access restrictions, they will be able to avoid scrutiny.

La Viña also said other SALN repositories might follow the Ombudsman’s lead. It’s important to file a petition before the Supreme Court to clarify access, particularly media access, he said.

In 2019, the Senate, which used to be one of the most open to making SALNs public, stopped releasing copies of the statements filed by senators. Senate Policy Order 2019-001 issued by the Office of Senate President Vicente Sotto allowed access only to SALN summaries and not the actual documents, citing the Data Privacy Act of 2012, which supposedly “restricts the dissemination of personal and privileged information.”

The House of Representatives has been disclosing only wealth summaries of congressmen since 2010. In February last year, it adopted House Resolution 2467 requiring all SALN requests to be approved by a majority vote of the House members in plenary session. Apart from numerous requirements, a requestor will have to pay P300 per SALN if the request is approved. That’s P91,500 for the SALNs of all 305 members of the House.

The Supreme Court has consistently thrown legal roadblocks at requests for the SALNs of members of the judiciary. After the ouster of former Chief Justice Renato Corona in 2012, the high court issued guidelines that required those seeking access to the wealth statements of justices to state in writing a reason for doing so. These requests also needed to be approved by the Supreme Court en banc. So far, requests from media organizations have been denied. Instead, the court releases only summaries listing the total value of the assets and liabilities of justices.

In the past 30 years, the PCIJ has obtained the full statements, not summaries, of the wealth disclosures of many public officials either through routine requests or in the course of its reporting. While some agencies held back, it was sometimes also possible to walk into the offices of government offices, or Malacañang, and get a copy right there and then. Some presidents, like Fidel V. Ramos and Joseph Estrada even disclosed their income tax returns.

The legal requirement to file SALNs is found in RA 3019 (Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act), the 1987 Constitution, and RA 6713 (Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees). (See sidebar: Laws governing wealth disclosure)

The earliest of these laws, RA 3019, enacted in 1960, requires public officials to prepare annual statements of assets but does not require that they be made available to the public. Public disclosure was mandated by the 1987 Constitution for the highest officials of the country, and in 1989, RA 6713, for lower-ranking officials as well. –with additional research by Floreen Simon, Arjay Guarino and Rex David Morales, PCIJ, October 2020

The Covid-19 response: Are the elderly and disabled being left behind?

This five-episode podcast was produced by UrbanisMO.PH and Young Public Servants with support from Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Philippines, International Center for Innovation, Transformation, and Excellence in Governance (INCITEGov) and PCIJ

BY AARON MALLARI / Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

What’s the big picture? Older persons and persons with disability were already marginalized in terms of government programs and services pre-pandemic. The harsh government response to the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly the long periods of lockdowns, only made it worse for them in terms of mobility and economic independence.  

Why it matters: The government’s coronavirus response affects the quality of life of all its citizens and not just the young and the non-PWD.

What are the facts? Emily Beridico from the Coalition of Services for the Elderly, Dr. Maureen Mata of AKAP Pinoy (Alyansa ng may Kapansanang Pinoy) and Dr. Grace Cruz of the UP Population Institute weigh in on the issue of inclusion in the time of Covid-19.

  • There have been no specific interventions and policies to address the needs of approximately 8 million senior citizens and 12 million persons with disability, who are considered highly vulnerable to the disease.
  • This episode touches on the overly delayed and poorly implemented Social Amelioration Program and other government livelihood programs, which do not automatically factor in inclusion of elderly and PWDs. 
  • Instead, inclusion relies heavily on the priorities of the local government units and the ability of sector representatives to assert themselves. 

The bottomline: As Dr. Mata says in this episode, the government must not treat providing services as ‘charity’. Instead, policy makers must keep an open mind and listen to the people’s needs, as citizens voice out their concerns with hopes that the government is listening.

Promotion, protection of breastfeeding practices reap rewards

By Angelica Carballo Pago/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Exclusive breastfeeding among infants 0 to 5.9 months has nearly doubled, from 30 percent in 2003 to 58 percent in 2019.

Women should still breastfeed despite the pandemic, even those found to be positive for Covid-19, according to a Department of Health (DOH) memorandum. This shows how the government has been relentless in promoting breastfeeding in the face of a formidable opponent – milk manufacturing giants who have made their way into the consciousness of Filipino mothers through massive advertising.

Despite the passage of the Milk Code 33 years ago, myths and unfounded beliefs persist amid aggressive promotions by milk manufacturers that claim to give a child advantage in terms of health and IQ points.

Only 35.1 percent of babies are exclusively breastfed until 5 months of age, according to the 2019 Expanded National Nutrition Survey of the Department of Science and Technology – Food and Nutrition Research Institute (DOST-FNRI), although exclusive breastfeeding percentages have been increasing since 2003, but took a dip in 2015.

Nathalie Verceles, director of the University of the Philippines Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, said the Milk Code was meant to protect the interest of mothers and babies from aggressive marketing strategies of formula milk companies. (See related story: Milk and the pandemic: Milk Code confusion cripples LGUs response for infants)

Mothers need support, according to Save the Children Philippines health and nutrition adviser Dr. Amado Parawan. A mother’s decision to breastfeed, he said, predates the birth of the child and will depend on what she believes – or is made to believe. This decision can also be affected by the support she gets – or doesn’t get – from home, work and community.

Maryjoy Mota shows the bottle used to feed baby Pia, when her family was able to scrape a few hundred pesos to buy formula milk. Photograph: Buck Pago

Here’s a timeline of breastfeeding policies and how they have influenced breastfeeding rates.

May 1981 – The International Code on Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes is adopted by the World Health Assembly. The aim is to protect and promote breastfeeding by ensuring appropriate marketing and distribution of breastmilk substitutes.

20 October 1986 – President Corazon Aquino signs Executive Order 51 or the Milk Code with its Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR). The Code regulates advertising of breastmilk substitutes, including infant formula, other milk products, foods and beverages, feeding bottles and teats.

1990 – Guided by the World Health Assembly resolutions, which state that “follow-on or follow-up formulas are unnecessary because after six months the baby starts to take complementary foods together with sustained breastfeeding,” improvements were introduced on the IRR, such as the ban on follow-on formulas. This was prompted by the 1987 Wyeth’s invention of follow-on milk for children aged six months and above that undermined the importance of breastfeeding. When the Milk Code was being drafted, follow-on milk was not yet invented. “Complementary food” includes food that is part of the local culture.

2 June 1992 – The Rooming-In and Breast-Feeding Act, Republic Act (RA) 7600, is passed, provides legal basis for rooming-in as a national policy to encourage, protect and support breastfeeding.

2003 – The exclusive breastfeeding percentage among infants 0-5.9 months stands at 29.7 percent.

2004 – The Task Force Milk Code begins discussion and debate on the first draft of the revised IRR of the Milk Code. Among those consulted was Swiss multinational Nestlé, who represented formula milk companies.

23 May 2005 – DOH Administrative Order (AO) 2006-0014 or the National Policies on Infant and Young Children is issued. It states that in times of crisis, breastfeeding is the first and best feeding option for infants and young children. It requires mothers and babies to remain together after delivery. Support must be given for mothers to breastfeed even in crisis or emergencies.

2006 – The Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association of the Philippines (PHAP) seeks a temporary restraining order on the revised IRR’s implementation. After initially denying PHAP’s petition, the court overturns its decision and issues a TRO on the revised IRR.

28 May 2007 – DOH AO 2007-0017 or the “Guidelines on the Acceptance and Processing of Foreign and Local Donations during Emergency and Disaster Situations,” states that “Infant formula, breastmilk substitutes, feeding bottles, artificial nipples and teats shall not be items for donation. No acceptance of donation shall be issued for any of the enumerated items.”

09 October 2007 – The revised IRR of the Milk Code takes effect after the Supreme Court partially upholds its validity. It strikes down certain provisions, such as the prohibition on advertising and promotion of breastmilk substitutes and introduces sanctions not found in the law.

01 April 2008 – The Department of the Interior and Local Government releases AO 2008-0055, or the “Guidelines on the acceptance and processing of foreign and local donations during emergency and disaster situations.” It endorses DOH AO 2007-0017 to all local government units.

2008 – The exclusive breastfeeding percentage among infants 0-5.9 months rises to 35.9 percent.

16 March 2009 – RA 10028 or the Expanded Breastfeeding Act, which amends RA 7600, is signed by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. It establishes standards for workplaces, health facilities (with the establishment of milk banks) and public places, and calls for breastfeeding breaks and designated facilities in the workplace.

Infographic by Alexandra Paredes

2011 – The exclusive breastfeeding percentage among infants 0-5.9 months rises anew, to 48.9 percent.

21 December 2012 – RA 10354 or The Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 is signed by President Benigno Aquino III. It includes breastfeeding as an element of reproductive health care and provides a basis for breastfeeding promotion and education.

2013 – More than half, or 52.3 percent, of infants 0-5.9 months are exclusively breastfed.

2015 – The exclusive breastfeeding percentage among infants 0-5.9 months dips for the first time to 48.8 percent.

29 November 2018 – RA 11148 or the “Kalusugan at Nutrisyon ng Mag-Nanay Act” is signed by President Rodrigo Duterte. The law seeks to address the malnutrition of infants and young and lactating women.

2018 – The exclusive breastfeeding percentage among infants 0-5.9 months recovers slightly to 54.9 percent.

17 April 2019 – RA 11311 or “An Act to Improve Land Transportation Terminals, Stations, Stops, Rest Areas and Roll-On/Roll-Off Terminals, Appropriating Funds Therefor and for Other Purposes,” establishes lactation stations in transport terminals, stations, stops and rest areas.

2019 – Exclusive breastfeeding improves to 57.9 percent.

Infographic by Alexandra Paredes

11 May 2020 – DOH Memorandum No. 2020-0237 or the “Interim Guidelines for the Delivery of Nutrition Services in the Context of COVID-19 Pandemic” states that mothers who are asymptomatic, or those with close contacts, suspect, probable, or confirmed case of COVID-19 who do not have severe illness and/or who are not in respiratory distress, can continue breastfeeding, provided that they observe strict infection control measures.

15 May 2020 – DOH Memorandum No. 2020-0231 or the “Guidelines on the Standardized Regulation of Donations, Related to EO 51,” provides guidelines on how LGUs can help provide nutrition for non-breastfeeding children under 3 years old. While donations are banned as stipulated in various laws and orders, LGUs can procure formula milk and give them to identified families. The memorandum still upholds the promotion and protection of breastfeeding for infants and young children. #

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Sources:

Food and Nutrition Research Institute for breastfeeding data

Babymilkaction.org for Milk Code RIRR timeline

Milk and the pandemic: Milk Code confusion cripples LGUs response for infants

By Angelica Carballo Pago/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

The indiscriminate distribution and use of breastmilk substitutes, especially during emergencies, can change feeding practices and put babies at greater risk of illness.

What you need to know about this story:

  • Experts are calling for measures to ensure the health and safety of infant and young children, which can easily be undermined by the milk industry’s aggressive marketing initiatives.
  • The Milk Code does not ban formula milk procurement and distribution by local government units, provided they follow guidelines set by the Department of Health (DOH).
  • Marketing and advertising of products within the scope of the Milk Code, however, are prohibited. Donations of formula milk and breastfeeding substitutes from manufacturers and distributors of these products are banned.
  • Local government units are clueless to the finer details of breastfeeding and infant and young child nutrition laws, to the detriment of mothers, infants and young children in need especially during the current Covid-19 crisis.
  • Milk companies use disasters and crises to market their products, and DOH data show a rise in Milk Code violations during the enhanced community quarantine period.

Here’s one unintended consequence of the Covid-19 health emergency: Parents and guardians are desperately finding ways to feed their babies, with some even begging on the streets or on social media. With lockdowns making it harder to provide proper and adequate food for the family, their health and nutrition — especially of babies — are at risk.

Local governments attempted to solve the problem by distributing formula milk to mothers, only to find out that donations are not allowed by the Milk Code, a 1986 law regulating the marketing and distribution of breastmilk substitutes.

Worse, formula milk makers seem to be taking advantage of the situation to undermine strict government regulations, experts observed.

During the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) in March, Maryjoy Mota, a 37-year-old resident of Antipolo, posted on the Antipolo City Facebook group that her two-month-old granddaughter needed diapers and formula milk.

Maryjoy’s daughter, 17-year-old Hazel, had just given birth to Pia (not their real names), two weeks before the ECQ was enforced throughout Luzon in mid-March. Maryjoy’s post drew a hundred other comments from mothers and guardians in the same situation.

With Hazel giving birth to Pia two weeks ahead of her due date, the doctor immediately prescribed a formula milk brand, PreNan, developed for premature newborns. Weighing just 1.7 kilograms, the baby had to be placed in an incubator.

“We were not given any other options or brands, nor given any instructions or assistance to start breastfeeding,” Maryjoy said.

Even when Hazel went for check-ups at the barangay and the district health centers before she gave birth, there were no instructions on breastfeeding, which could have helped them save some money instead of spending it on formula milk, she said.

Maryjoy’s comment on Antipolo City’s Facebook page, asking for milk and diapers for her grandchild.

Sought for comment, an official of the Rizal Provincial Hospital System – Antipolo Annex 1, who asked not to be named, insisted that the hospital followed breastfeeding protocols. But Pia weighed below the 2.5-kilogram birth weight threshold and showed signs of sepsis, the official said.

The formula milk prescribed to Pia met the baby’s caloric requirements, which might not be sustained by breastfeeding, the official said.

But with no income, it was impossible to buy the 400-gram can of milk, which costs P641. Maryjoy’s common-law husband, Ricky, lost his construction job because of the pandemic, while Pia’s parents were unemployed teenagers.

While some local leaders were aware of the plight of new mothers like Hazel, the Milk Code posed an obstacle. Sangguniang Kabataan Chairman Arky Manning of Barangay San Isidro in Taytay, Rizal learned this the hard way.

The Department of Health (DOH) gave Manning a memo for violating Executive Order (EO) 51, or the Milk Code of 1986, by “accepting and distributing milk formula donations” given to mothers with infants in Taytay in April and May 2020.

Manning explained that it was part of the “Tulong Kay Baby (help for baby) project,a donation drive that he had organized with his friends. They bought milk and diapers using funds given by private individuals. No mass distribution or random donation of milk happened, he claimed.

Manning was one of the 291 violators flagged by the DOH from March 1 to July 24, largely covering the ECQ period in Luzon. Reports of violations came from the general public, submitted through http://mbfp.doh.gov.ph. MBFP, which stands for DOH’s Mother and Baby-Friendly Philippines, is the reporting platform for violations of the Milk Code and the Expanded Breastfeeding Act of 2009 (Republic Act 10028).

The list of violators included health workers, non-profit organizations, and local executives such as Manning, and Mayors Andrea Henares of Antipolo City and Marcy Teodoro of Marikina City.  Also on the list were celebrities such as Say Alonzo and Marian Rivera Dantes, who together with Nido, a brand that Dantes endorses, and the YesPinoy Foundation, were reported to have distributed follow-on formula. Dantes even posted it on Instagram to her 9.4 million followers.

EO 51 issued by former President Corazon C. Aquino, otherwise known as the Philippine Milk Code of 1986 or simply, the Milk Code, regulates the marketing of breastmilk substitutes, including milk formula, breastmilk supplements and other similar products by prohibiting the advertising and promotion, whether written, audio or visual, for such products. It adheres to the International Code on Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, adopted by the World Health Assembly in May 1981. Breastfeeding advocates have hailed the Milk Code as one of the strongest breastfeeding protection laws in the world.

The Milk Code’s Revised Implementing Rules and Regulations (RIRR), released 30 years after the law was signed, prohibits the donation of infant formula and breastmilk. Administrative orders from the DOH and the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) further disallow the donation of infant formula milk and breastmilk substitutes in times of disasters and calamities.

According to data from the Food and Nutrition Research Institute, exclusive breastfeeding rates have continuously gone up in the last 10 years, reaching 57.9 percent in 2019. The global exclusive breastfeeding rate stands at 41 percent. The United Nations targets to increase global breastfeeding rates to 50 percent by 2025. (See sidebar: Promotion, protection of breastfeeding practices reap rewards)

Marketing is prohibited, the milk is not

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said the law did not bar local government units (LGUs) from procuring formula milk.

“If local government units procure formula milk, the law does not cover it. EO 51 is a regulatory tool used by the Department of Health to regulate the advertisement of manufacturers that formula milk is more important than a mother’s milk. That’s our first objective — we would like to know that breastmilk is still the best for babies,” she said.

DOH Memorandum No. 2020-0231, dated May 15, 2020, laid down the guidelines on the standardized regulation of donations covered by the Milk Code. Formula milk and breastmilk substitutes can still be provided to those in need, with the following conditions:

  1. The local government unit buys it using its own budget (procurement);
  2. Breastmilk should still be the first choice and the procured formula milk is given to identified mothers/infants, not distributed en masse;
  3. Distribution, preparation and use of breastmilk substitute and formula milk must be done under the supervision of health and nutrition workers;
  4. There should be no brand name, logo or identifiable marks of the manufacturer; and
  5. No public relations, announcement or the likes may occur.

Dr. Mianne Silvestre, executive director of Kalusugan ng Mag-Ina (mother’s health) Foundation, echoed Vergeire’s explanation.

“The Milk Code is there to regulate the marketing and advertising of formula milk and breastfeeding substitutes, and not to penalize parents who give these products to their children,” Silvestre said. “Nobody goes to jail for feeding formula milk to their babies.”

Sharing a similar view, Dr. Paul Zambrano, a technical specialist at Alive and Thrive, a private initiative to reduce child undernutrition by improving infant and young child feeding practices, said: “Marketing (of formula milk and breastmilk substitutes) will undermine the practice of breastfeeding and complementary feeding with healthy food after six months. It’s meant to save lives. It is meant to prevent the top killers of children in that age group – diarrhea and pneumonia. ”

The problem, Silvestre said, was that formula milk was being marketed as the first option instead of breastfeeding. This goes against the hierarchy of infant feeding choices laid out in the Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding published by the World Health Organization (WHO), which states that donated breast milk from a wet nurse or milk bank takes precedence over formula milk.

Infographic by Alexandra Paredes

Even for Covid-19 positive mothers, the WHO still recommends continued breastfeeding and rooming of babies with their mothers. Transmission of Covid-19 through breastmilk or breastfeeding has not been established.

No guidance for LGUs

What can and cannot be done under the code does not seem to be clear to local governments, even to the DILG. In an interview with PCIJ, Interior Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya, affirmed that the ban extends to selective distribution of milk to identified mothers and babies and referred to the National Nutrition Council website for guiding policies.

Taytay’s Manning said no guidance came from any government agency, particularly the DOH or DILG, on how they could respond to the needs of mothers and their babies.

During the quarantine, local officials, such as Quezon City Councilor Ariel Inton, repeatedly appealed to the DOH to lift the ban on milk donations.

In a Facebook livestream, Inton, a lawyer, gave practical advice to barangay officials planning to distribute formula milk to their constituents. “Tell them that you are handing it out as loans or ask for coins so they won’t say it’s a donation, so you can give the children something to eat,” Inton said.

For Ynares, while the Milk Code has an important purpose, it can also be a “bane during crisis.”

“It poses a huge challenge for families and the government to provide essential nutrition required for child growth and development particularly during extraordinary times,” the Antipolo City mayor said.

A National Nutrition Council advisory said that LGUs should consider that some recipients of pandemic relief goods have young children and pregnant and lactating mothers. Families are supposed to be monitored by Barangay Nutrition Scholars and Barangay Health Workers, who will provide them with low-cost, one dish-meal recipes as well as recipes utilizing their relief goods.

But Maryjoy said there were no vegetables and nutritious food in their relief packs. The lack of proper nutrition may have affected her daughter Hazel’s milk supply, she said.

“The first relief pack we received had three kilos of rice, two cans of sardines, and two Lucky Me noodles,” she said.

There was one instance, Maryjoy said, when her family received a few kilos of rice and 16 pieces of dried fish (tuyo). To increase Hazel’s milk, Maryjoy bought malunggay and cooked it with noodle soup.

While the DOH had specifically instructed that assistance should be provided to breastfeeding mothers, Maryjoy said no one from her barangay came to ask how her daughter and granddaughter were doing. “They only gave me a 150-gram pack of powdered Bear Brand milk, only for her to drink, but none for the baby,” Maryjoy recalled.

The usual relief pack distributed by LGUs during the quarantine period contained a few kilos of rice, canned goods and instant noodles. The nutrition council however urged LGUs to include dark green and yellow vegetables; root crops; legumes, beans and seeds; fruits; poultry and eggs; meat or fish; and pasteurized fresh milk.

Only a few cities and municipalities were able to distribute fresh produce.

Maryjoy shows the 150-gram pack of powdered milk she received after lining up at the barangay hall. She believes the lack of nutritious food affected Hazel’s (not her real name) milk supply. Photograph: Buck Pago

“We are in a crisis situation, and even the government’s hands are tied because of supply chain problems. The local government units have to procure thousands and thousands of produce to give to their constituents who need it not now, but yesterday. That is the limitation, and we understand when canned goods are distributed given the situation,” said DILG’s Malaya.

Malaya pointed out that on top of the relief packs given to households, a one-time cash assistance was given in the form of the Social Amelioration Program (SAP).

“The family can go to the market and buy what they think is nutritious food for lactating mothers. The government has already provided funds for them and they can make that choice if they wish to,” Malaya said.

But for Maryjoy, the SAP she received had to be divided among three households.

The P6,500 is to be divided among three families, with each receiving P2,000, but I get to have the extra P500 because it was I who lined up for that money,” Maryjoy said. Most of what she got eventually went to repaying debt incurred when her husband lost his job.

Milking disasters

Breast or bottle? This question remains contentious. Since the Milk Code was enacted in 1986, the milk industry has taken advantage of every possible loophole to undermine the law. When the Milk Code took effect in 1987, international milk manufacturing company Wyeth invented the follow-on formula for babies six months old and beyond.

The Milk Code’s implementing rules and regulations (IRR) were revised to include a ban on advertising follow-on formula in 1990. A revised IRR was drafted in 2006, adding further safeguards 30 years after the Milk Code was signed, but this was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court.

A report released in May 2020 by WHO, United Nations Children’s Fund and the International Baby Food Action Network said that despite the pandemic, milk companies continued to skirt laws in many countries and continuously promoted their products.

“There is no guarantee that these donations will occur over the long term,” said Dr. Nathalie Africa-Verceles, director of the University of the Philippines Center for Women’s and Gender Studies. “The intention really is to introduce the product and to generate dependence with the belief and the hope that women will continue to patronize the products that they were provided for free initially.”

Studies have shown that mothers exposed to breastmilk substitutes were highly likely to abandon breastfeeding, and the indiscriminate distribution and use of formula milk put infants at greater risk of illness, which might be fatal.

A study in Indonesia in the aftermath of the May 2006 earthquake in Yogyakarta and Central Java found that the distribution and use of breastmilk substitutes resulted in changes in feeding practices. Uncontrolled distribution of infant formula exacerbated the risk of diarrhea among infants and young children during the emergency, the study found.

“(The Milk Code) is very relevant because let’s look at what the companies do during times of emergencies, they use it to try to market the product,” said Zambrano.

DOH data confirmed these observations. The health department noted that a rise in reports of Milk Code violations from the public began to occur in the week when the strict lockdowns  began, peaking during the week of April 6 to 12 with 90 cases.

Infographic by Alexandra Paredes

Apart from solicitations, there were product advertisements, such as Marian Rivera-Dantes’ Instagram post. Corporate and private donations also happened online, mostly through Facebook posts, according to the DOH data.

Zambrano pointed out that the relevance of the Code had always been questioned during emergencies. He recalled a situation in Cagayan de Oro after typhoon Sendong in 2011 when distribution of formula milk became rampant.

Silvestre downplayed the matter and said only a few mothers were unable to breastfeed their babies due to medical or physical reasons.

“These few cases are being hyped up to rationalize the lifting of the prohibition during emergencies. When in fact, it is during emergencies when we should intensify the protection of mothers to enable them to breastfeed their babies,” Silvestre said.

Formula milk manufacturers have been accused several times of unscrupulous means of advertising their products, targeting mostly low-income families or those who can least afford their product.

A 2018 report from Save the Children Philippines revealed that baby formula brands in the Philippines are using “aggressive, clandestine and often illegal methods” to get poor mothers to choose their product over breastfeeding.

Hospital staff also gave brand-specific recommendations to mothers who had just given birth, clearly a violation of the Milk Code. The report named Nestle, Abbott, Mead Johnson and Wyeth as the companies who are using these illegal tactics.

All four companies denied the allegations in separate statements sent to the Guardian in 2018.

Cheapest, but not the best

Hazel is helping her mother with their online selling business, earning a few extra pesos to help augment their family’s income. She expects breastfeeding to be temporary and will likely go back to feeding Pia formula milk.

Maryjoy said they had begun feeding Nestogen One to Pia, the cheapest in the market at P78 per box. It wasn’t prescribed by the doctor.

“But Pia doesn’t want it, she won’t swallow it,” Maryjoy said.

As Hazel handles deliveries and client meet-ups for their online selling business, Maryjoy has no choice but to give Pia formula milk. 

“I need to go back to school,” Hazel said.

Asked where they will get the money to buy formula milk, Hazel shrugged. –PCIJ, October 2020

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Editor’s Note: The real names of Hazel and her baby, Pia, were not used because they are minors.

For kids in special education, lockdown learning a must

By Winona Sadia/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Learners with special education needs require face-to-face instruction but are vulnerable to the coronavirus disease. Parents and teachers have no choice but to make distance learning work.

As the clock ticked closer to 10 a.m., Elena Elpedez cleared the dining table to make way for her son’s online class simulation. Ten-year-old Enzo, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD, has the entire makeshift study area for himself for a good hour. Excited, Enzo set up his Zoom account to meet up with his classmates and teachers, albeit virtually.

Despite the difficulties of distance learning amid the coronavirus pandemic, Elena did not think twice about enrolling her bunso (youngest child) this school year for special education or SPED at Parang Elementary School in Marikina. It was better, she said, than letting months pass without Enzo learning anything.

Elena left her business process outsourcing job in 2015, as soon as she realized the need to supervise Enzo’s schooling and therapy. She then put up a printing business at their house to augment her income. During the lockdown, Elena recycled reviewers and worksheets from customers to refresh Enzo with what he had learned the previous school year.

Elena prints out recycled worksheets to help Enzo continue learning during quarantine. Photograph: Winona Sadia

Para ma-instill sa kaniya na dapat continuous pa rin ang pag-aaral niya. Ayaw ko kasing isipin niyang bakasyon lang siya, baka matagal ko na naman siyang mapapayag mag-school (I wanted to instill in him that learning should be continuous. I don’t want him to think it’s just a long vacation. It might take time to convince him to go back to school),” she said.

The 44-year-old mother of two was worried over their internet connection after the school held simulation classes ahead of the opening on Oct. 5. She’s keeping her fingers crossed that Enzo and his kuya (older brother) Edrei, an 18-year-old Grade 12 student, would have opposite class schedules so they won’t use the internet at the same time.

The problems of SPED parents and teachers go beyond weak internet connections, however. Physical interaction with teachers is a cornerstone of SPED, and experts and stakeholders are still debating whether to push face-to-face classes or settle for distance learning. One thing is sure: parents like Elena will have to pull all stops to make everything work, if they don’t want their kids left behind. (See related story: Will distance learning work? Parents, teachers not so sure)

But Elena is not so confident in becoming Enzo’s teacher.

Titingin ako sa books niya ngayon at ipapabasa sa kanya. Kung ano `yung pagkabasa [at] pagkakaintindi namin, `yun na `yun,” she said. “Hindi katulad ng teacher, may sarili silang style, may mga visual aid pa sila, which is hindi talaga magagawa ng parent (I will look at the books and ask him to read them. How we read and understood them, that’s it. Teachers have their own style, they have their own visual aids, which parents don’t),” she said.

Elena converts their dining table into a makeshift study area for Enzo, who begins schooling at Parang Elementary School on Oct. 5. Photograph: Winona Sadia

Exception for SPED learners?

SPED enrollment has always been low. Genevieve Caballa, executive director of the Alternative Learning Resource School Philippines (ALRES-Phils) – a school offering SPED and therapy programs – said that 97 percent of learners with disabilities were not in school. Enrollment has not improved for more than a decade, she said.

Data from the Department of Education (DepEd) showed that of more than 5 million Filipino children with disabilities nationwide, only 1.4 percent or more than 71,000 non-graded learners were enrolled for the upcoming school year as of September.

Former education secretary Bro. Armin Luistro called for face-to-face classes among learners with special education needs, or LSENs, despite the pandemic.

“SPED should continue and it has to be face-to-face. There are only a few students and they need the equipment and special teachers in the schools. Barangay (village) leaders and DepEd should work together on it,” Luistro told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).

Fernan Gana, president of the Quezon City Federation of Parents and Teachers Associations, said this was easier said than done.

Tama ‘yung rekomendasyon [pero] siguro, pag-aralan lang ‘yung protocols [at] kung paanong iiwasang magkahawaan ‘yung mga bata. Alam naman nating mas vulnerable sila, lalo na `yung mga nasa SPED school (The recommendations are correct but the protocols should be studied to prevent kids from infecting one another. Those who are in SPED school are more vulnerable),” he said.

But for Reading Association of the Philippines President Frederick Perez, SPED institutions might have to consider halting classes altogether.

“Sorry to the SPED schools but I don’t believe that special education will be meaningful and fruitful at this time. Maybe next year. They (LSENs) need a lot of physical contact,” he said.

‘Face-to-face learning ideal, but safety first’

Caballa would rather stick to distance learning, cautioning against resuming face-to-face classes for LSENs.

“Many of them are immunocompromised, so they are more at risk than neurotypical children. [We] don’t want to endanger learners. They could get easily infected,” she said.

Caballa argued that halting school altogether for SPED learners would mean depriving them of their right to continuous education.

“Children have a critical window for development and learning opportunities. If you miss that, there’s no turning back,” she said.

The SPED expert also warned against “regression,” which she said was common among learners with disabilities.

Neurotypical learners, or children with no intellectual or developmental disorders, were less likely to regress even with long breaks from studies, as they have other options to continue learning, she said.

“For learners with disabilities, if they don’t study or are not given just a little stimulation, they easily regress academically and behaviorally,” Caballa said. “The intervention we’re looking at is really empowering parents. Parents are the key.”

According to DepEd’s Basic Education Learning Continuity Plan, face-to-face instruction for learners with disabilities would be allowed only in “very low-risk areas” such as geographically isolated, disadvantaged, and conflict-affected areas with no history of Covid-19 infection.

However, teachers and learners should be living in the vicinity of the school. Face-to-face classes for LSENs, DepEd said, must undergo risk assessment and adhere to strict health protocols.

Redefining learning

Caballa said the way to help LSENs cope with the new normal in education was for parents and teachers to “redefine learning.”

When SPED classes opened at her school on July 13, teachers saw the need to engage the household in online and offline learning activities.

“It’s not just paper and pencil. It’s integrated in home routines. In cooking, for example, we incorporated functional math and reading, reading a recipe, measurement, procedure,” Caballa said.

SPED teachers must also make it a point to keep the screen time within the “ideal” one to two hours per session, she said.

Some of Enzo’s artworks are displayed on the walls of their house in Marikina. Photograph: Winona Sadia

The new setup means parents play an even bigger role in their children’s studies, Caballa said.

Kung dati, hinahatid lang nila `yung bata [at] pinapasa na sa teacher, [ngayon] they realized [na] mahirap pala `yung ginagawa ng teachers, but at the same time we’re encouraging the parents [at] nakaalalay kami sa kanila (Before, they just dropped the kids at school. Now they realize that what the teachers are doing is not easy. At the same time, we’re encouraging the parents and we’re helping them.),” she said.

“It becomes less teacher-dependent because the teacher is just a facilitator and the parent is the lead teacher, which is how it should be.”

Caballa said she found comfort in how several learners have responded to the distance learning setup.

“For the majority, we found out that they were more resilient than how we had perceived them to be. We thought they won’t be able to adjust,” she said.

Running a private SPED school where parents shoulder the costs still has a lot of challenges, especially on the part of teachers, Caballa admitted. There are two backup teachers per session in case the internet connection falters.

“It’s difficult, but I guess we’re driven by our passion for what we do. We know that we don’t have a choice. The other choice is just to stop,” Caballa said. –PCIJ, September 2020

Winona Sadia finished AB Journalism at the University of Santo Tomas. She works as a TV news producer. You may reach her on Twitter (@winonymous) or at sadiawinona@gmail.com for comments or suggestions.