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UN urges Duterte gov’t to investigate, prosecute rights abusers anew

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) again urged the Rodrigo Duterte government  to conduct “independent, full, and transparent” investigations to ensure accountability for rights violations and abuses in the Philippines.

In a resolution Wednesday (Philippine time), the UNHRC also condemned all “acts of intimidation and reprisal, both online and offline” against human rights groups and other critics.”

In its 45th General Session from September 14 to October 7, the Council took note of the scathing report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) last June 4 detailing the Duterte government’s heavy-handed focus on countering national security threats and illegal drugs that has resulted in serious human rights violations, including killings and arbitrary detentions, as well as the vilification of dissent.

[READ: UNITED NATIONS: Rights violations widespread and persistent under Duterte gov’t]

The new resolution recommended that OHCHR and Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet assist the Philippines in its “fulfillment of its international human rights obligations and commitments” through:

  • technical assistance and capacity-building for domestic investigative and accountability measures
  • data gathering on alleged police violations, engagement with civil society
  • national mechanism for reporting and follow-up
  • counter-terrorism legislation
  • and human rights-based approaches to drug control.

The resolution was sponsored by the Philippine government itself, along with fellow member-States India and Nepal, as well as non-members Hungary, Thailand, Turkey and Iceland.

‘Human rights crisis’

A human rights alliance said the latest UNHRC resolution indicates that the international community has acknowledged the human rights crisis in the Philippines and persists in its scrutiny of the Duterte government.

The Ecumenical Voice for Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines (EcuVoice) said the resolution is proof that the Duterte administration, despite its belligerent stance and statements in past HRC sessions, has also started to acknowledge “domestic and international pressure for justice and accountability” for its reported human rights violations.

“The resolution comes after the damning report of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on the persistent and widespread killings and human rights violations in the Philippines, the numerous statements of UN Special Procedures expressing concern on the situation, the European Parliament resolution calling on the European Commission to initiate the temporary withdrawal of trade perks of the Philippines in the light of the serious rights violations, and the proposed measure at the US Congress to end military and police aid to the Philippine government,” EcuVoice said in a statement.

EcuVoice led the filing of dozens of reports of human rights violations by the Duterte government at the HRC’s 43rd General Session in Geneva, Switzerland last February and March that became part of Bachelet’s report recommending investigations to be conducted in the Philippines.

Human rights group Karapatan said the new resolution is “a sign that the international community remains committed in closely monitoring the situation of human rights in the country.”

Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay, however, expressed disappointment that the new resolution “looks over the urgent demands of victims, their families and communities” for in-country probes.

 “[I]t (the resolution) falls short of a decisive and adequate response to the worsening human rights crisis in the country — and we strongly believe that technical cooperation and capacity-building activities would not stop the administration’s human rights violations,” Palabay said.

Karapatan challenged the Duterte government to allow access to UN investigators if it has nothing to hide in line with Bachelet’s original recommendation.

It also urged governments, parliaments, civil society groups, and international non-governmental organizations to conduct independent investigations to validate the real human rights situation in the Philippines. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Duterte now a known dictator with EU Parliament vote, rights group says

President Rodrigo Duterte is now known as a dictator by the international community after the European Parliament passed a resolution last September 17 condemning widespread human rights violations in the Philippines, an international rights group said.

The International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) said Duterte has become a globally notorious dictator whose four-year reign has greatly surpassed the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the number of civilians killed by his government.

“With the strong resolution from the EU Parliament, the Duterte government has now gained notoriety as a world-known human rights violator, if not, a dictator following the likes of Ferdinand Marcos,” ICHRP said in a statement.

More than 3,000 were killed, 34,000 were tortured, 70,000 were imprisoned and billions of public funds were stolen by the Marcos regime.

Duterte’s long list of violations

The European Parliament said at least 8,663 people had been killed by the Philippine National Police through a “widespread and systematic” anti-drug campaign by the Duterte government.

The resolution said that Duterte himself explicitly encouraged the police to commit extrajudicial execution and promised them immunity and promotions.

Majority of the victims were from poor and marginalized communities, the measure added, quoting a June 2020 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The resolution also listed the following human rights violations committed by the government:

-threats, harassment, intimidation and violence against human rights defenders, journalists and activists, equating their advocacy with insurgency;

-conviction of Rappler’s Maria Resa and Reynaldo Santos for cyberlibel and the denial of the renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise;

-imprisonment of Senator Leila de Lima;

-killing of at least 43 land rights defenders;

-criminalization and attacks against indigenous human rights defenders;

-killing of human rights defender Zara Alvarez and peace advocate Randall Echanis;

-assassination of at least 16 journalists and a pattern of intimidation of independent news sources;

-Duterte’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court;

-Congress’ approval of the death penalty measure and adoption of a new anti-terrorism law;

-Duterte’s repeated sexist and misogynistic speech and behavior;

-endangerment of workers’ rights advocates;

-Duterte’s repeated reference to political opponents’ sexual orientation as a smear against them and implying that homosexuality is a disease;

-victimization of up to 100,000 children in prostitution rings and child labor; and

-government’s failure to curb corruption.

The European Parliament resolution said it proactively supports the adoption of a resolution at the ongoing 45th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council to establish an international investigation into human rights violations committed under the Duterte government.

The measure also recommended to the European Union (EU) to temporarily withdraw the Philippines’ Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus status that provides tariff perks for Filipino goods until the Duterte government “immediately carry out impartial, transparent, independent and meaningful investigations into all extrajudicial killings.”

The resolution was adopted with 626 votes in favor, seven against, and 52 abstentions.

Allies of Duterte however dared Europe to go ahead with its sanctions and vowed reprisals in the future.

“No more discussions. They should do what they want to do during this time. If they want to implement it, go ahead,” presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said.

“I’m sorry. I’m being very undiplomatic in my answer, but what else can I say? At the time of a pandemic, they’re threatening us. Susmaryosep, what else do we lose?” Roque added.

Philippine House of Representatives Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano for his part said the European Parliament’s resolution is an interference in the “country’s domestic issues.”

“The Philippine House of Representatives takes exception to the outright interference of the European Parliament in the purely domestic matters of the Philippines by dictating on the government ‘to renew the broadcast license’ of ABS-CBN and to ‘drop’ the Cyberlibel charges against Maria Ressa,” Cayetano said in a statement.

“To our friends in the European Parliament, we have a saying here in the Philippines that the world is round. The day will come – mark my words – that the Philippines will be in a position to impose economic sanctions on your countries,” he said.

A bill seeking to block United States (US) assistance to the Philippine police and military, including equipment and training, “until human rights conditions are met,” has also been submitted by 19 US House of Representatives members last week.

Duterte’s de facto martial law

 ICHRP said it welcomes the resolution by the legislative branch of the European Union it said is a damning indictment of the human rights crisis in the Philippines.

“The demands for justice for those slain in the drug war, the killings of activists, attacks on press freedom have all gained international condemnation. It is an attestation that the world no longer tolerates this repressive government. Duterte and his dictator government will be made accountable,” ICHRP chairperson Peter Murphy said.

 “President Duterte with his ‘de facto’ Martial Law in place and the continuing repression in the country has found himself increasingly isolated in the international community. Cut from the same cloth as that of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Duterte is now synonymous with killings and human rights atrocity,” Murphy added. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Bayanihan 2 and 2021 budget leave millions of unemployed behind

by IBON Media & Communications

The latest July 2020 labor force survey (LFS) figures confirm the inadequacy of the Duterte administration’s response to what is developing into the worst jobs crisis in the country’s history. The Bayanihan 2 and the proposed 2021 national government (NG) budget give the appearance of assistance but will leave millions of jobless and distressed Filipinos behind. The level of aid for the people is much too small for the magnitude of the crisis at hand.

This year will likely see the biggest contraction in employment in the country’s history. Employment contracted by 1.2 million in July 2020 from the same period last year, falling to 41.3 million employed according to the latest LFS. This comes after the reported 8.0 million year-on-year contraction in April 2020. For the whole of 2020, IBON estimates employment to fall by 2-2.5 million from last year. This will far surpass the previous record employment losses of 833,000 in 1980 and 821,000 in 1997.

The crisis of joblessness is unprecedented. The official unemployment rate of 10% in July 2020 brings the average of the first three rounds for the year so far to 11% which is not likely to improve much even when the October round results come out. The 4.6 million officially reported unemployed in July 2020 is already 2.1 million more than in the same period last year.

Adding 4.6 million unemployed and the 7.1 million underemployed means that the government acknowledges at least 11.7 million Filipinos jobless or looking for additional work to increase their incomes in July 2020. IBON however has long pointed out that official unemployment figures since 2005 tend to underestimate the real number of unemployed Filipinos by around 2-2.5 million annually.

Moreover, the labor department has already reported 604,403 overseas Filipino workers seeking assistance of which only a little over one-third (237,778) have been helped so far. In a press briefing today, they also said that they expect another 200,000 to need help until the end of the year.

Official figures likely underestimate the extent of the problem. However, even going by these, the inadequacy of the government’s response to directly help the people is clear.

Bayanihan 2 promises Php5,000-8,000 in emergency cash subsidies and other assistance for poor households, displaced workers and OFWs. However, only Php19.2 billion is budgeted for cash subsidies and other assistance which is just 3.8 million beneficiaries at most. The aid will also just be a mere Php37-60 per person per day for a month or even less than the official Php71 poverty threshold.

In the proposed 2021 NG budget, there is no provision for substantial emergency cash subsidies beyond existing social welfare department programs such as the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) and smaller programs. Indigent pensioners are not getting any increase in their pensions. Even the labor department’s Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged/Displaced Workers and Government Internship Program (TUPAD-GIP) program gets just a meager Php3.2 billion increase to Php9.9 billion.

Micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) are also not getting the focused assistance that they need. There are 997,900 MSMEs employing 5.7 million workers aside from hundreds of thousands more unregistered establishments with millions more workers. Formal sector establishments had over Php21 trillion in expenses in 2018. In July 2020, the DTI said that 26% of companies they surveyed closed operations and another 52% were only partially operating. Those partially operating also said their income was down by 90 percent.

The Php77.1 billion Bayanihan 2 budget for production and enterprise support will cover only a small fraction of workers in MSMEs, and is even shared with farmers and fisherfolk. In the proposed 2021 NG budget, the MSME Development Program is even getting a Php416 million budget cut to just Php2.3 billion. The budget of the Small Business Corporation (SBC) stays the same at just Php1.5 billion.

In their press briefing today, the economic managers projected a 12% unemployment rate in 2020 (mid-point of the Development Budget Coordination Committee estimate of 11-13%) improving to 6-8% in 2021 then 4-5% in 2022. These optimistic projections cannot materialize without substantially increasing aggregate demand through meaningful cash transfers to millions of distressed households and more support to hundreds of thousands of struggling MSMEs.

Tens of millions of Filipinos and their families will continue to suffer for years without a genuine stimulus program overriding the misguided fiscal conservatism and reckless optimism of the economic managers. #

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.

PH ‘stimulus’ smallest in region

Philippine spending in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is among the smallest in the region, said research group IBON.

The narrow-minded obsession with ‘creditworthiness’ stops the government from taking the urgent steps needed to restore livelihoods and save the economy. The group said that having economic managers dominated by finance people rather than development experts is the biggest obstacle to real recovery.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Policy Responses to COVID-19 tracker, the fiscal policy response of the Philippines is equivalent to just 3.1% of its gross domestic product (GDP).

IBON noted that this is the smallest among the major economies of Southeast Asia. This is less than in Singapore (19.7%), Vietnam (13.3%), Thailand (9.6%), Indonesia (4.4%) and Malaysia (4.3%). It is also less than half of the global average of around 6.2% of GDP.

The Philippines’ ranking does not change even if the Bayanihan 2 bill recently approved by the Senate is passed into law, said the group.

The proposed Php140 billion stimulus program is worth just 0.7% of the GDP and will bring the country’s fiscal response only to 3.8% of GDP.

The IMF notes that country data are not always strictly comparable but the figures are nonetheless indicative.

IBON said that upcoming national government (NG) budgets meanwhile see the smallest post-crisis ‘stimulus’ increases in decades, further undermining economic recovery.

Department of Budget and Management National Budget Memorandum No. 136 only foresees a 5.7% budget increase in 2021 falling to an even smaller 1.8% increase in 2022, despite the country facing the worst economic decline in its history in 2020 because of the pandemic.

The budget increase in 2021 would be the smallest in a decade and in 2022 the smallest in over 30 years.

These increases also compare unfavorably with budget increases after the 1997 Asian financial crisis and 2008 global financial and economic crisis.

After the Thai Baht collapsed in 1997, the NG budget rose by 9.3% in 1998 and then by 8.0% in 1999. After the Lehman Brothers firm collapsed in 2008, the NG budget rose by 9.1% in 2009 and by 2.7% in 2010.

The economic managers have been blocking larger stimulus packages proposed by Congress since at least May, the group said.

The House of Representatives and Senate took up more meaningful stimulus measures worth at least Php1.3 trillion or more but stopped when the finance department told them to because these were ‘unfundable’ and ‘unsustainable’.

These measures would have been closer to the global average.

Among others, this also affirms that the so-called power of the purse of Congress is illusory and how the president and executive branch are actually in complete control of the country’s finances. The president can implement a bigger stimulus package if he wants to, said the group.

The obsession of the economic managers with ‘creditworthiness’ is misplaced, said IBON.

Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia have lower credit ratings than the Philippines but are spending more to respond to and recover from the pandemic. Financing can be raised by reallocating from less productive infrastructure and debt service, and by a more progressive tax system with higher taxes on large firms and the wealth of the country’s super-rich.

The magnitude of the country’s response has to be commensurate to the crisis at hand. This should span health measures, continued cash subsidies to improve household welfare and boost aggregate demand, and support especially to Filipino and domestic market-oriented micro, small and medium enterprises, said the group. #

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Beyond capacity and overwhelming incompetence

by Maricar R. Piedad

The Philippines has been in varying intensities of community quarantine for 124 days—a world record in terms of the longest lockdown response to COVID-19. But the fight against the virus is still far from over, and now it seems like the country is back to square one—overwhelmed hospitals, rising number of cases, and overall chaos. All those days in lockdown have been wasted because of the Duterte administration’s louche decisions and inaction on building up the healthcare system’s capacity for COVID-19 response.

The government, more than ever, should acknowledge the graveness of the crisis. It should prioritize implementing solutions to flatten the curve rather than push business-as-usual measures towards so-called recovery when the imminent threat of the pandemic continues to stare every Filipino in the face.

So far, the measures it has taken—lockdowns, limited triage testing, and waiting for a vaccine from other countries—have been passive.

On the verge of collapse

The current healthcare system is now operating close to its maximum capacity with cases exceeding 63,000; already reaching the projection of cases 60,000-70,000 by the end of July and cases is increasing by almost 1,000 daily. Still, government has no clear and concrete plan to expand testing triage and capacity.

The sluggish COVID-19 testing is prolonging the country’s fight against the virus. Only a small portion of asymptomatic cases are being detected because of the absence of mass testing. Compared to the rest of the world, the Philippines has a low number of asymptomatic cases. But this is mainly because less than one percent of the country’s total population has been tested for COVID-19, almost six months after the first reported case. As of writing, only 1,009,511 individuals have been tested.

According to the adjusted estimates of the University of the Philippines (UP) as of July 13, the mean number of hospitalized patients is 23,747 and it can reach up to 28,024. As of now, the total hospital bed capacity is at 15,548, with 1,661 ICU beds, 10,410 isolation beds, and 3,477 ward beds. There are only 1,938 mechanical ventilators available. This means that hospitals may need to double their total number of beds before the end of July to accommodate these patients.

However, hospital bed capacity only increased by about 2,019 beds since last month’s total bed capacity of 13,529, according to the Department of Health (DOH). There was also no significant addition to the mechanical ventilators available which are important to treat critical cases. There was also no notable increase in the COVID-19-dedicated ward and ICU beds. Considering that more suspected and probable cases will be needing hospitalization, the influx of patients seeking medical attention will be beyond the country’s healthcare capacity. The exponential increase in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases will overwhelm the healthcare system in no time and hospitals will be forced to deny patients due to the lack of facility.

The ICU bed occupancy rate, which is a huge indicator of critical care capacity, is already at 41.2% as of the latest DOH data drop. Ward beds are at 57.1%, and isolation beds are at 48.4% occupancy. Majority of the ward and isolation beds occupied are also located in private healthcare facilities. This is despite public hospitals having more COVID-19-allocated beds. This could mean that majority of COVID-19 patients are compelled to receive treatment from private institutions charging higher hospital bills and out-of-pocket expenses due to limited benefit packages from the Philippine Health Insurance Company (PhilHealth).

Out-of-almost-empty-pocket

Ballooning COVID-19-related expenses of Filipino patients is another major issue that the government should address. The medical bills of some COVID-19 patients have ranged from hundreds of thousands to millions of pesos, depending on the severity of the case. For instance, the bill of one recovered patient reached Php1.312 million for a 15-day confinement. According to the patient, a huge chunk of the medical bill were charges for laboratory tests, doctors’ professional fees, intubation, and the ventilator and respirator she used throughout her admission. Though all her medical expenses were fully covered by PhilHealth, this is no longer the case for COVID-19 patients admitted in accredited hospitals from April 15 onwards.

At the start of the pandemic, the Duterte administration assured the public that it has individuals infected with COVID-19 covered. However, PhilHealth announced in early April that it would no longer shoulder all expenses and would instead implement case rate packages for confirmed and probable cases effective April 15. According to PhilHealth Circular 2020-0009, patients with mild pneumonia can avail of a maximum coverage of Php43,997, while moderate and severe pneumonia patients can have a maximum amount coverage of Php143,267 and Php333,519, respectively. Critical patients, on the other hand, can access a Php786,384-worth maximum benefit.

But PhilHealth computations for these packages contradict the government’s assurances and may not be enough to cover the numerous medical procedures COVID-19 patients must undergo. Medical expenses in excess of the case rates will be paid out-of-pocket, and the amount could be considerable. If the patient with the Php1.312 million medical bill for example had been confined after April 15, PhilHealth would have just paid the Php333,519 maximum coverage for severe pneumonia patients. The remaining Php978,481 or almost 75% of the patient’s total medical bill would have to be paid out-of-pocket.

The abrupt economic shutdown resulted in most Filipinos losing income and struggling with the recent rise in the cost of living, especially the poor and vulnerable. Many of them can ill-afford to pay for medical expenses and may no longer consult doctors despite having symptoms.

Burning Out

Aside from the health infrastructure, the government also needs to reinforce the country’s human resource for health. Even before the pandemic, Filipino doctors and nurses were already treating patients beyond their capacity.  According to the Philippine Health Review 2018, there are 3.9 doctors and 8.6 nurses for 10,000 people. This medical worker to patient ratio is a far cry from the World Health Organization (WHO)-recommended 10 doctors and 20 nurses for every 10,000 population.

A Philippine Institute of Development Studies (PIDS) study also noted that, in a 24-hour set-up, 1 doctor and 2 nurses will be needed to treat 6 ward patients. Critical care patients will need 1 doctor and 1 nurse each as well as other special healthcare workers such as a pulmonologist, intensivist, infectious disease specialist, and mechanical ventilator technicians.

The available healthcare workers in the country will not suffice. With no significant addition to the health workforce, the country’s doctors and nurses will be overwhelmed and exhausted. There will also be a greater risk of infection for medical workers since having more patients could mean more exposure to COVID-19. There are already 3,805 healthcare workers infected and 35 of them have already died. 

The DOH decision to reassign physicians under the Doctors to the Barrios program is another sign that there are not enough doctors in COVID-19 treatment hospitals and reinforcements are urgently needed. However, only 5,216 health workers have so far been hired to fill the DOH-approved 9,297 slots for emergency hire. This slow hiring means medical frontliners continue to work beyond their capacity to treat the piling number of COVID-19 patients. The DOH itself has also noted the difficulty in hiring health workers because many of them have private services that they cannot leave. It also does not help that the entry level salary for healthcare workers is low. For example, a medical laboratory technician—which is under salary grade 6, can only earn up to Php 15,524 per month.

The country’s shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) is also contributing to the huge number of infected health workers. According to the WHO, the global shortage of PPEs is affecting healthcare workers worldwide. This shortage could have been eased if the country had the means to manufacture its own PPEs, such as a local textile industry. But the country is reliant on imported PPEs. The Philippine Exporters Confederation Inc. (PhilExport) stated that despite factories’ willingness to produce PPEs, they cannot simply do so because of the lack of fabric and other materials. Had there been a Philippine industry for essential health protection needs, infection among front liners and in general would have been minimized.

Overcoming incompetence

The Duterte administration’s failed COVID-19 strategy in ending the current health crisis exposes its incompetence and lack of sensibility. The 124 days spent in lockdown and the opportunity costs incurred during this period have been wasted because the government failed to effectively intervene and keep the healthcare system from collapsing. It should now set its priorities straight and put all hands on deck to amplify health responses.

The government is not prioritizing funding for the healthcare system and social amelioration but it is pushing for ill-timed programs that will allegedly help in the country’s economic recovery. A concrete example is the continuation of the Duterte administration’s “Build, Build, Build” program despite the more pressing need to reallocate more funds for COVID-19 response.

The Philippine Program for Recovery with Equity and Solidarity (PH-PROGRESO) of the government shows that it is more inclined to save big businesses first before the Filipino people. The huge budget allocated for private corporations’ benefit should be realigned to help the overwhelmed healthcare structure. Fiscal measures for health and economic recovery should go hand in hand instead of pitting one against the other since overall economic performance is very much reliant on the well-being of the Filipino work force.  

Inadequate and relaxed response to COVID-19 hinders the Philippine economy from fully opening. It has only been two months since the gradual operation of businesses and since workers returned to their respective workplaces but the government is already losing control of the situation. Aside from the uncontrollable spread of the disease, hospitals are now reporting that they reached their maximum critical care capacity. Forty-eight hospitals already reported that their ICU beds are now full, and it is alarming that 50% of these hospitals are located in the National Capital Region (NCR). Meanwhile, Cebu City—which is the new epicenter of the disease in the country, is also nearing the danger zone in its critical care capacity. If the population of the Philippines’ major economic hubs keep on getting sick, then it will be much harder for the economy to recover its losses.

The government must protect first the Filipino people from the COVID-19 threat. Majority of Filipino workers are at risk of contracting the disease. The economy cannot recover without a healthy workforce to power it. According to UP’s analysis, half of the Philippines’ major economic contributors are considered high risk spreaders of COVID-19, such as construction workers, security guards and commercial drivers. Many of them are minimum wage earners lacking adequate social benefits and protection. This makes them more vulnerable to infection and with limited means to pay for expensive COVID-19 treatment.

The government should speed up the efforts in broadening and building up testing and hospital capacity.  More than ever, it should make healthcare accessible and affordable for every Filipino. This includes making COVID-19 testing and treatment free for all. The pandemic will not be over as long as infected Filipinos are not isolated and treated due to the lack of facilities and expensive healthcare.

In the end, the entire Philippine economy will suffer if Filipinos are not protected from this disease. The economic downgrade will be far greater if the coronavirus crisis lasts longer. The government cannot afford another lockdown since it will not only endanger the economy but will also bring intense hunger and more hardship. It must act now and prevent the health system from collapsing and the Filipino people from succumbing to both the pandemic and to poverty. #

Pahayag ng isang manunulat at direktor hinggil sa Anti-Terrorism Act

Inihahalintulad ni Bonifacio Ilagan, isang manunulat at direktor, ang kanyang mga naging karanasan noong panahon ng Martial Law sa maaaring mangyari ngayong naipasa na ang Anti-Terrorism Act.

Pinirmahan ng pangulo ang nasabing batas noong Hulyo 3. Limang araw na lamang ang nalalabi bago ito tuluyang ma-implementa.

UN official slams rights violations in the Philippines, urges ‘options for int’l accountability’

A United Nations (UN) high commissioner urged the international body’s Human Rights Council (HRC) to mandate her office to continue monitoring and reporting on thousands of human rights violations in the Philippines.

In her remarks at the start of the UN HRC’s 44th general session in Geneva, Switzerland Tuesday, June 30, High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said violations are “very serious” that requires the Council’s consideration of “options for international accountability measures.”

“I urge the Council to remain active and vigilant on the situation in the Philippines, by mandating my Office to continue monitoring and reporting, as well as through support for technical cooperation to implement the report’s recommendations,” Bachelet said.

Bachelet was introducing her 26-page report mandated by the Council’s Resolution 41/2 of July 2019 on the human rights situation in the Philippines.

The high commissioner said Philippine laws and policies to counter national security threats and illegal drugs have been crafted and implemented in ways that severely impact human rights.

“They have resulted in thousands of killings, arbitrary detentions and the vilification of those who challenge these severe human rights violations,” Bachelet said.

She added that their investigations found more than 248 human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and trade unionists were killed between 2015 and 2019.

“This includes a large number of environmental and indigenous peoples’ rights defenders. Human rights defenders are routinely smeared as terrorists, enemies of the State and even viruses akin to COVID-19,” she said.

‘Worrisome anti-terror bill’

Although not a part of her report, Bachelet also mentioned concerns related to the anti-terrorism measure slated to become law this month.

“The recent passage of the new Anti-Terrorism Act heightens our concerns about the blurring of important distinctions between criticism, criminality and terrorism,” Bachelet said.

The high commissioner said the measure, once it becomes law and implement, could also have a further chilling effect on human rights and humanitarian work, hindering support to vulnerable and marginalized communities.

“So I would urge the President to refrain from signing the law and to initiate a broad-based consultation process to draft legislation that can effectively prevent and counter violent extremism – but which contains some safeguards to prevent its misuse against people engaged in peaceful criticism and advocacy. My Office is ready to assist in such a review,” she said.

‘Failed anti-drug war’

Bachelet’s report said it found serious human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, resulting from key official policies driving the so-called “war on drugs.”

It said such policies incite violence from the highest levels of the Duterte government.

“The campaign against illegal drugs is being carried out without due regard for the rule of law, due process and the human rights of people who may be using or selling drugs. The report finds that the killings have been widespread and systematic – and they are ongoing,” Bachelet said.

The high commissioner said they found near-total impunity, indicating unwillingness by the State to hold to account perpetrators of extrajudicial killings.

“Families of the victims, understandably, feel powerless, with the odds firmly stacked against justice,” she said.

Moreover, by senior government officials’ own admission, the draconian campaign has been ineffective in reducing the supply of illicit drugs, Bachelet added.

The Ecumenical Voice for Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines (EcuVoice), an alliance that submitted a total of 16 reports in support of Resolution 42/1 expressed appreciation for Bachelet’s report.

“We subscribe to her findings and wholeheartedly support the recommendations, EcuVoice said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

[NEXT IN THIS SERIES: Government’s reply and civil society’s reactions]

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Philippines media faces ‘eternal threat of punishment’ after cyber libel convictions

The Duterte administration’s war on media has entered a new phase

By Karlo Mongaya

A Manila court convicted one of the Philippines’ leading journalists on charges of cyber libel in a case widely seen as the latest attack on dissenting voices and press freedoms in the country.

Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa sentenced news website Rappler’s chief executive editor Maria Ressa and former reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr. to 6 months and 1 day up to 6 years in jail and ordered them each to pay P400,000 (about US$8,000) for moral and exemplary damages on June 15.

Ressa and Santos are the first journalists in the Philippines to be found guilty of cyber libel since the law was passed in 2012. They were allowed to post bail pending appeal under the bond they paid in 2019, which cost 100,000 pesos (2,000 US dollars) each.

Rappler, an independent website of international renown has been targeted by the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte. The court, however, found Rappler itself to have no liability in the cyber libel case.

Targeting Rappler

Press freedom advocates in the Philippines and across the world swiftly decried Ressa’s conviction as part of the Duterte administration’s campaign to terrorize and intimidate journalists.

The case against Ressa and Rappler was filed in 2017 by businessman Wilfredo Keng over a 2012 Rappler story covering his alleged links to Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona, who was being impeached on corruption charges at the time.

Keng’s case was initially dismissed in 2017 because it was beyond the statute of limitations. Moreover, the article itself was published four months before the cybercrime law was enacted.

But the case was subsequently readmitted by the Philippine justice department, which extended the period of liability for cyber libel claims from one year to 12 years and argued the article was covered by the law because it was ‘republished’ in February 2014, when Rappler updated it.

While Duterte and his spokesmen deny any links to the cyber libel case, Rappler has been on the receiving end of regular ire from the president and his allies for actively investigating and exposing the administration’s bloody war on drugs, social media manipulation and corruption.

Rappler reporters were banned from covering presidential press briefings in 2018, for what Duterte characterized as “twisted reporting” during a presidential address.

Pro-Duterte trolls deride Rappler as a peddler of “fake news” and hurl invective at its reporters.

The cyber libel case is but the first in a total of 8 active legal cases against Ressa and Rappler which include another libel case and tax violation allegations. All were filed after Duterte came to power in 2016.

The Duterte government moved to shut down Rappler in January 2018, claiming that it violated laws on non-foreign ownership of media outlets — a claim that is demonstrably false.

A protester calls for ‘mass testing, not mass silencing’ at a rally held on June 4, 2020, the day the Philippine Congress passed the anti-terror bill. Photo by Kodao Productions, a content partner of Global Voices

Curtailing dissent

The College of Mass Communication of the University of the Philippines (UP), the country’s premier state university, condemned the decision as a dangerous precedent that gives authorities the power to prosecute anyone for online content published within the past decade:

The State can prosecute even after ten, twelve or more years after publication or posting. It is a concept of eternal threat of punishment without any limit in time and cyberspace.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said the charges that Rappler faces is only the latest in “a chain of media repression that has seen the forced shutdown of broadcast network ABS-CBN and a spike in threats and harassment of journalists, all because the most powerful man in the land abhors criticism and dissent.’’

The government forced the country’s largest television network, privately-owned ABS-CBN, off air last May after the pro-Duterte congress refused to renew the station’s broadcasting license.

Growing persecution of media comes against the backdrop of an anti-terror bill passed by the legislature that allows the president to create an anti-terrorism council vested with powers to designate individuals and groups as “terrorists.”

That designation in turn allows warrantless arrests and 24 days of detention without court charges, among other draconian provisions.

Authorities have brazenly denied the bill threatens freedom in the country.

AERIAL SHOT: 5,000 human rights advocates and activists observe physical distancing as they commemorate Philippine Independence Day and hold a ‘Grand Mañanita’ against the Duterte government’s Anti-Terrorism Bill today, June 12, on University Avenue, University of the Philippines- Diliman, Quezon City. Photo and caption by Kodao Productions, a content partner of Global Voices

Holding the line

At a press conference after her court hearing, Ressa vowed to hold the line:

Freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have as a Filipino citizen. If we can’t hold power to account, we can’t do anything.

A few days before Ressa’s conviction, thousands defied the lockdown to join anti-terror bill protests in Manilla despite threats of violence from the police.

Protesters ironically described their demonstration as a “mañanita” — the word that Police General Debold Sinas, a Duterte ally, used to justify his birthday party celebration, which took place amidst severe restrictions on gatherings.

Double standards for Duterte allies and the weaponization of laws against critics were a constant theme in tweets that used the #DefendPressFreedom hashtag in response to the Ressa case.

(Kodao is a content partner of Global Voices)

Balik-pasada at ayuda, hiling ng mga tsuper

Ginanap ngayong araw, Hunyo 27, ang Araw ng Pakikiisa para sa mga Jeepney Driver. Nagkaroon ng magkakahiwalay na pagbibigay ng ayuda sa iba’t ibang pondohan ng mga tsuper sa Metro Manila.

Pangunahing tinulungan ng Bayang Matulungin, isang proyekto ng Bayan Muna at PagAsa, ang mga tsuper sa Project 3, Quezon City, Samson Road, Caloocan City, at Rizal Ave., Manila. Nasa mahigit isang daan ang kanilang natulungan.

Panawagan ng mga tsuper na ibalik na sila sa pamamasada at bigyan ng ayuda ang bawat isa. Lampas 100 araw na ang lockdown, ganun din ang kanilang tigil-pasada. Kasama ang kanilang pamilya sa mga apektado ng kanilang kawalang-trabaho. (Bidyo nila Jo Maline Mamangun, Jola Mamangun, at Reggie Mamangun)

PH Debt: All’s well that swells

by Rosario Guzman

Lenders have offered to defer debt payments for those severely affected by the lockdown. The World Bank has encouraged the Group of 20 nations to postpone repayment of official bilateral credit, although has not yet considered suspending debt payments owed it. The International Monetary Fund has approved debt relief to its 25 poorest member countries. Commercial banks have offered a 60-day grace period for loans, including for household debts borrowed through credit cards. Even informal moneylenders in the Philippines’ urban poor communities have reportedly stopped collecting loan installments for a while.

These are not necessarily all done out of sheer goodwill. In many cases they seek to stop debtors from succumbing to severe debt-driven crisis due to the pandemic which would stop them from paying anything at all in the future. In short, they are also favorable to the creditors.

The Duterte government, with its much-brandished good credit standing, could have moved for debt relief too but instead, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it started borrowing more. The finance department underscores the need for government to borrow from foreign sources to fund its economic recovery plan. Multilateral and country creditors have unsurprisingly exploited the situation and recycled funds to lend.

Do we really need to borrow for COVID response? People have asked. How are we going to pay for all of these debts?

Accumulating debt

The Duterte administration’s Philippine Program for Recovery with Equity and Solidarity (PH-PROGRESO) is worth Php1.7 trillion, Php561 billion (US$11 billion) of which is targeted by the Department of Finance (DOF) to come from bilateral and multilateral loans and global bonds. There is another Php404 million (US$8 million) in foreign grants.

From March 14 to June 4 this year, based on IBON monitoring, the Duterte government has already obtained foreign commitments of US$3.95 billion in loans, US$17.3 million in grants, and US$5 million in technical assistance (TA) – all for addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. The Philippine-headquartered Asian Development Bank (ADB) accounts for US$2.1 billion of the loans plus all of the TA and much of the grants. The World Bank accounts for US$1.1 billion, and the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) for US$750 million. There are US$9.3 million in grants from USAID. In sum, there are 7 project loans, 2 grants, and 1 regional TA so far.

Loans amounting to US$3.95 billion are, at the current exchange rate of Php50.05 to a US dollar, equivalent to Php197.7 billion. This increased the outstanding national government debt which has already risen from Php7.7 trillion by the end of 2019 to an astounding Php8.6 trillion by April 2020. The Php869-billion increment in the last four months far surpasses the full-year increments of the last three years.

Government securities increased by Php436 billion, while the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas used its repurchase facility to lend Php300 billion to the national government for COVID response. Meanwhile, external debt increased by Php133.1 billion from December 2019 to April 2020. In April 2020, the Duterte government’s foreign debt grew 16.5% year-to-date and 16.4% year-on-year, or the biggest increase in the last four years.

The Duterte government has already reached 66% (or Php919.5 billion) of its Php1.4 trillion projected gross borrowings for the year. If the planned foreign financing for PH-PROGRESO alone is realized, the government would already go over its borrowing projection. This does not yet include the uncontrollable increase in domestic debt due to the continuous issuance of government securities. Domestic debt comprises 68% of the outstanding national government debt.

For whose sake, really?

The loan commitments are specified for strengthening healthcare, augmenting funds for socioeconomic relief, and providing economic stimulus for agriculture and micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). There are also wage subsidies for small enterprises and support for repatriated overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

These are urgent things to attend to during the pandemic that the Duterte government has not competently addressed. Instead, we have only witnessed how government’s policy of health privatization, neglect of essential economic sectors, and myopic understanding of the poor have made it ill-prepared for an emergency such as COVID.

COVID-19 is unplanned thus the need to apply for a loan – that has been the official line. Are the loans meant to help us cope with the coronavirus, while government opts to keep spending for its neoliberal policies and to protect business?  Actually, these urgent loan-financed items are part of a larger package which includes even bigger support for businesses who get financial relief in the form of tax deferrals, low-interest loans, and credit guarantee schemes.

The country’s creditors are more straightforward. They will provide budgetary support so that the country’s economic managers can continue spending on the administration’s Build, Build, Build (BBB) infrastructure projects, foreign investment attractions, tourism and other boosters of the otherwise slowing, and now contracting, economy.

The ADB has pledged US$1.5 billion from its COVID-19 Active Response and Expenditure Support (CARES) program for fiscal management, among others. The AIIB’s US$750 million loan is co-financed with CARES. The AIIB only has loan facilities for infrastructure investment and does not have a ‘development financing’ orientation. It recently launched a COVID recovery facility but even this is oriented towards addressing liquidity problems, providing fiscal and budgetary support in partnership with multilateral banks, and building health infrastructure – all so that governments can focus on COVID impacts and leave infrastructure funds alone.

The more recent Php400 million loan commitment of the ADB to strengthen domestic capital markets and investments is more explicit. This is to enable the Duterte government to fund infrastructure at lower costs and to enable the private sector to raise infrastructure funds from capital markets.

COVID-19 is unplanned, while the Duterte administration’s focus is unchanged. The government is still fixated on burnishing the economy’s image to attract foreign investors, and will only address the emergency by as much as it can borrow. This reinforces the country’s vicious spiral of debt and shallow economic growth. Creditors are complicit in this neoliberal COVID response.

Protecting profits

But what really demolishes the argument that government needs to take out a loan for COVID-19 is that there are viable sources of money that government chooses to forego in behalf of big business. Case in point is the DOF-backed Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises (CREATE) bill, the renamed second package of the unpopular Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) Law. The first package taxes consumption goods by the poor and relieves the rich of paying income taxes. CREATE in turn reduces corporate income tax from 30% to 25%  from July 2020 until 2022 and thereafter 1% yearly cut until 20% by 2027. This gives corporations up to Php667 billion worth of tax breaks over the next five years, which is the largest in the country’s history.

CREATE is at the core of the administration’s recovery plan, PH-PROGRESO. It also proposes Php133.7 billion in loans and guarantees, Php142.8 billion in other tax cuts and foregone revenue, and Php233.3 billion in additional liquidity. PH-PROGRESO declares prioritizing the resumption of BBB. To do so, it incentivizes big business with tax cuts and liquidity and equity infusion through government intervention and borrowing in the guise of helping them recover from the pandemic recession. The creation of jobs and recovery of incomes of the poor and vulnerable are an afterthought.

Indeed, government has to revive the economy from the unnecessary lockdown, but this has to start with what is truly essential. The COVID crisis is an extraordinary opportunity for government to strengthen national production in agriculture and industry – a surefire way to stimulate employment and consumption. But agriculture and the MSMEs that make up the majority of the country’s enterprises are extremely marginalized.

In the House-approved Php1.3 trillion Accelerated Recovery and Investments Stimulus for the Economy (ARISE) bill, agriculture gets a paltry Php66 billion and MSMEs are allocated only Php125 billion in loans and guarantees. The COVID crisis is also a golden chance to bridge the chasm between rich and poor, which has become stark especially during COVID. But quite to the contrary the Duterte government has relieved the rich and increased borrowing to sustain such economic order – an addition to the mounting burden of the poor.

Unpayable future

The DOF reiterates that the debt is payable and that the country is in no way headed to a debt crisis. It says that the debt-to-gross domestic product (GDP) ratio is only around 39.6% at the end of 2019 and 43.3% as of March 2020. The ratio indicates manageable levels, says the government, and is much less than in 2000-2010 when the debt-to-GDP ratio hovered around an annual average of 60% until it started going down in 2011 at the start of the country’s high growth episode.

But those days are gone. Fast economic growth peaked in 2012-2016 then steadily declined since the start of the Duterte presidency. Before COVID, the administration tried to but could not cover up the slowing economy. The GDP growth slowed from 6.9% in 2016, 6.7% in 2017, 6.2% in 2018, and to just 6.0% in 2019, the slowest in eight years. The economy shrank in the first quarter of 2020 by 0.2%, and the economic managers are seeing a severe decline in full-year real GDP growth to -0.6% to 4.3 percent.

All the sources of economic growth that government has relied on – OFW remittances and foreign direct investment in BPOs and export manufacturing – have slowed down since the beginning of the Duterte administration. And these are definitely headed into a tailspin as the global economy sinks deeper into crisis.

The Duterte government has never considered the erosion of agriculture and manufacturing to arrest the economic slowdown. Instead, it has artificially boosted economic growth with pump-priming – increasing government spending to its highest level as percent of GDP. Infrastructure spending comprised 4.7% of the GDP in 2019 and is targeted to reach 7.0% of the GDP by 2022. It shall be the highest among all the administrations.

BBB projects are the Duterte administration’s preferred drug for resuscitating the ailing economy before it slips away. However, it has been borrowing heavily for this. Of the Php4.3 trillion needed for the 100 flagship infrastructure projects of the administration, 83% is expected to come from official development assistance (ODA), mostly in the form of loans. The Duterte government’s borrowing binge is unprecedented – on a monthly average, it is borrowing Php45.6 billion, almost three times as much as Aquino (Php19.0 billion) and over twice as much as Arroyo (Php21.2 billion).

The fiscal deficit is thus a growing problem, with the Php660.2 billion deficit in 2019 equivalent to 3.5% of GDP. The fiscal deficit is already at Php348 billion as of April 2020.

Here is why the debt is eventually unpayable and such a huge burden. First of all, ODA loans may be at concessional rates but are tied to the conditionality of using the technology, materials and expertise of the creditor country. In the case of China, this includes even the use of Chinese labor. Secondly, absorptive capacity in a program as grand as BBB is a major issue. The Philippine government lacks the bureaucratic and technical capacity to implement all the grand infrastructure projects. This capacity has been eroded by decades of privatization and deregulation. The private sector, on the other hand, is not that deep because of the economy’s backward fundamentals. Third, BBB’s main focus is mobility for the benefit of the service and trading oriented economy, and not in building Philippine agriculture and industry. Thus the infusion of infrastructure capital or even the construction of the facility will not be useful in the long run for national development.

Lastly and most ironically, we are being obliged to fully pay for this mounting debt. This early, the government is already thinking of taxing and raising government fees on the very coping mechanisms of the dislocated working people. For instance, the economic managers want to tax online selling even as people are losing their sources of livelihood, or want to collect bike registration fees as workers seek alternatives to the poor public mass transport, among others. The government already failed to meet its revenue target in 2019, short by Php12.2 billion, and is anticipating even bigger spending and bigger debt in 2020.

Our future is being mortgaged. It doesn’t help to cure apprehensions when government says that the debt is manageable. Government has to end its anti-people neoliberal economic policies, and only then shall we be well. #

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.