Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Duterte should have left the sacking of Rappler entirely to SEC, and stayed away from making the bruising fight his own. Foreign reactions mount in protest of the SEC move, but it still has failed to dent Duterte's popularity. What gives?

The huge uproar over the recent closure by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) of the nearly six-year old Rappler, Inc. on the charge that it has violated the Constitution’s restriction on foreign ownership of local media, continues. The SEC, headed by P-Noy appointee Teresita Herbosa, has also accused Rappler of violating the anti-dummy law, the Corporation Code and the Securities Regulation Code.

SEC has revoked the news outlet’s certificate of registration, alleging that Rappler, Inc. ”sold control to foreigners”---even as its closure extended to the stockholder which owns 98.77% of the company, Rappler Holdings Corporation, headed by Benjamin Bitanga, who is  Filipino. The SEC accused Rappler Holdings of “existing for no other purpose than to effect deceptive scheme to circumvent the Constitution.” 


The closure of Rappler comes in the heel of a number of administration moves that bring into serious question---especially abroad, judging from various foreign reactions---what appears to be its ineluctable drift toward authoritarianism and strong-man rule. The overtures in Congress about the possibility of a "No-El" scenario only succeed in reinforcing this unhealthy perception abroad about the administration's drift. 

Since last week various foreign entities, most notably media organizations, have denounced Rappler's closure. Very recently a prominent senator from President Trump's Republican Party, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, in a privilege speech delivered in the US Senate, went to town in lumping President Duterte with other leaders, including his party-mate Donald Trump who had been attacking news media and then accusing them of propagating "fake news." 

Citing how Mr. Duterte had complained of being "demonized" by "fake news," Sen. Flake recalled the recent ASEAN Summit in Manila where the Philippine President, with President Trump "laughing by his side," called reporters "spies." Flake said that though that statement appeared to be a joke, still, "nothing was funny about the emergence of dictatorial leaders who attacked news media when the truth started to hurt them."  Flake likened Mr. Duterte to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.


The shut-down of Rappler would not have hurt Mr. Duterte's image as much had he just remained quiet and let the SEC do the dirty job vs. the news site.  That move could have been argued by SEC, as  Sec. 11 (1)  of Article XVI, “General Provisions,”  of the 1987 Constitution specifies that “The ownership and management of mass media shall be limited to citizens of the Philippines, or to corporations, cooperatives or associations, wholly owned and managed by such citizens.”  

SEC fell on the provision that Congress “shall regulate or prohibit monopolies in commercial mass media when the public interest so requires. No combinations in restraint of trade or unfair competition therein shall be allowed.” SEC then zeroed in on the issuance by Rappler Holdings to “Omidyar Network Fund LLC---a fund created by ebay founder Pierre Omidyar and wife---of what are called “Philippine depositary receipts” (PDRs). To SEC those PDRs represent ownership.

SEC’s action can be appealed within 15 days, but it has already created history in that as noted in media, revocation of Rappler's license “was the first for both the commission and the Philippine media.” What the Duterte administration should have done was to studiously keep out of the SEC-Rappler dispute and just let them fight it out. 


Unfortunately, Mr. Duterte came out in an interview showing articles from Rappler that were outright against his administration. His communications people jumped in too, and the issue of violation of the Constitution---which has validity---morphed into a campaign to get Rappler for its attacks against the President.

It will be recalled that in his 2017 State of the Nation Address, President Duterte already attacked Rappler as foreign owned, and thus violating the Constitution and he later followed this up with his accusation that the CIA was funding the online website. Palace communications officials followed through by making life difficult for Rappler (Mocha removed it from the Palace website).

The SEC had admitted in one instance that it had been deliberating on the Rappler case since December 2016---only six months into the current administration---when SEC received a request from the Office of the Solicitor General for an investigation of the news website and Rappler Holdings Corporation.


The battle has become personal between the President and his men, and the news website. Feisty broadcast journalist Maria Ressa---who heads the Rappler media group composed mainly of women scarred in journalistic battles over the years---has vowed to fight for her organization’s right to exist and operate. The SEC case  has aroused fears in local circles of media censorship by the Duterte administration.  Observers, recalling what happened to the Inquirer, are now watching what could happen to ABS-CBN. 

Tie that to talk in the House of Representatives about a No-el scenario and one can imagine the reactions from abroad as well as here. 

Interestingly, however, despite criticisms from abroad, Rodrigo Duterte's popularity remains at an all-time high here at home---the highest for any Philippine President at this comparative stage in his administration.  This is the paradox of his zig-zagging leadership. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

Likelihood of federalism shift puts PH at critical crossroads, as dynasties infused with more "local" funds would predictably refuse to fade away. Current dynasties would prefer cha-cha via a constituent assembly, as they themselves would vote the new system in. But for such a historic undertaking, the best is to elect delegates across the country in a con-con.

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte
Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III
House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez

Having been away for over two weeks, I find myself plunging right into the issue of the planned constitutional shift to federalism.  This is not new---we have been talking about it for years, but the fact that the party pushing it---the PDP Laban---is in power makes a lot of difference. 

With President Duterte having campaigned for federalism since he was mayor of Davao and making it the core issue of his presidential campaign, plus the fact that he enjoys a popularity rating not seen in recent administrations, MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE. 

That Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III is vigorously campaigning for federalism in continuance of the family legacy begun by his father, former Senator Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel, Jr. adds tremendous impetus to the current campaign.  


Despite the above factors, however, a shift to federalism will not be a walk in the park. In fact, because of this planned push by the administration to federalism, the country is in a crossroads, with considerable implications on our political and economic life.

Further complicating an already complicated topic---the shift from a unitary to a federal system---is the naked plan of the party in power to do away with the mid-term elections of 2019 and simply extend the term of all current members of  Congress---as well as that of Mr. Duterte--- beyond 2022, by a vote of Congress convened as a constitutional assembly.   


The parliamentary system has many adherents around the world---the US and  Germany are among the biggest federated examples, as are Canada and  Australia. In our Asian region Malaysia and India are successful examples of federations.

A shift to federalism from our current unitary form of government centralized in Manila would make an interesting---and imperative---case study, for there are factors present in our current set-up not found abroad in other cases of shifts in form of government.  Academics point to the fact that the Philippines has 7,000 islands,  28 dominant ethnic groups and 81 provinces---the fact is that in this diversity lies both the richness of our culture as well as the inherent difficulties in governance.


For federalism to succeed here, however, we need, in addition to the intrinsic factors two key factors: A BETTER-EDUCATED PEOPLE WHO ARE BY AND LARGE ECONOMICALLY WELL-SITUATED. These are the reasons why federalism has succeeded in the countries cited above:  their citizens are  better-educated and enjoy improved economic status.

The poverty in our country would make our people quite susceptible to further machinations of the political lords in each province---entrenching the latter further and the derided dynasties just dance the rigodon among themselves. .


Moreover, our being a country of many islands has helped Manila control power and wealth, earning the monicker of “Imperial Manila” (if I am not mistaken, that term was coined years back by former Senator John Henry OsmeƱa and it stuck).  As the imperial majesty, Manila has held the purse-strings and funds have merely TRICKLED DOWN to the LGUs, at their pleasure and discretion. 

The local entities are in a tight bind, inasmuch as they can only collect real estate taxes and business permit fees, not much else. 

Whereas, in a federal set-up the LGUs ideally could generate more income and retain them---to fund programs they need and determine by themselves. Note, for instance, that in 2015, 35% of the national budget went to Metro Manila, even if it represented ONLY 14% OF THE COUNTRY'S POPULATION. 

With the planned devolution of more power and autonomy to the LGUs in a shift to the federal system. it is argued that the central government could now focus on the big-ticket items---such as foreign policy, defense, health care and taxation. That’s one positive aspect of federalism. 

But just as important, “Imperial Manila” could perhaps now look forward to badly-needed decongestion as the LGUs would be given more impetus and challenge to develop as population centers outside Manila. Hopefully it could be a race for meaningful and substantial development such as job generation, and not just the superficial, e.g., park beautification.  


Right now, Metro Manila is bursting at the seams and rural folk continue to stream into it---as there's not enough movement in the provinces and rural salaries are abysmally low. To be sure, there are factors that have spurred some growth outside Metro Manila over time, such as the arrival of call centers and related industries. These industries, however, have yet  to produce ENOUGH MIRACLE EFFECT TO STEM MIGRATION TO METRO MANILA, especially of the untrained. 

Among the nuclei of growth---owing principally to the development of the internet-triggered industries there---are Cagayan de Oro, Davao City, Naga City, Baguio City, Iloilo City and Tacloban City. Academic nerve centers there have sustained businesses feeding on the internet. 

But the fact remains that there is still a heavy inflow into Metro Manila than outward migration. If you don't believe me, ask your housemaids whose clans are virtually in the cities already.


I have been for federalism for some years now but there are nagging concerns that I’m sure many other Filipinos share. One is the fear that federalism, which will give more access to home-grown funds than ever before, would only  institutionalize political families in each province and city than we have seen so far.

I cannot shake off my mind the Parujinogs, the Espinosas, the Mabilogs and other local warlords who have ruled over their areas---soon to be even more empowered with fresh funds. 

The fly in the "Con-Ass" ointment is that it would likely be Congress---in a 3/4 vote in a constituent assembly---that would be passing all these constitutional amendments. Can we expect the miracle of the dynasties outlawing themselves?


With more funds among the LGUs the petty warlords could just thrive in more hospitable climate----to the detriment of the townspeople who need real emancipation from poverty and lack of opportunities.  Historically, federalism thrives best in an area where the people are better educated and reasonably independent economically from the politicos. These two attributes are mutually dependent. and Switzerland is always cited as the ideal.  
Can the citizens of our LGUs who could be newly emancipated by federalism also derive better education and training,  so as to be independent from the dynasties that will seek to continue to rule over them? Could we truly claim we could say goodbye to warlordism in those "emancipated" areas?

Ultimately it is not more funding that we could fall back on to develop our people into more politically independent citizens---IT IS MORE AND BETTER EDUCATION. I have observed at close range how the American people live their daily workday lives:  at its core is a better-educated and trained, and more politically aware people.  

How soon could we produce such Filipinos in our soon-to-be federated regions?

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Grinch that’s stealing our Christmas: the Aquino regime’s Dengvaxia. A truly sad story about how politics corrupts even the most sensitive of issues: the people’s health. Amendments should be made to insulate crucial health regulatory agencies truly independent of the DOH, so that similar nightmare won’t visit us again

Photo from Philippine Daily Inquirer showing former Health Secretary Janette Garin administering Dengvaxia vaccine shot on a school girl.

Christmas is the most beautiful season of the year and its observance in the Philippines is acknowledged the longest in the world. But political developments recently exposed by ongoing Senate Blue Ribbon Committee hearings tend to steal Christmas from the hearts of many Filipinos who are depressed about those hearings.   

The Grinch that’s stealing our Christmas refers to the ramifications of the scandalous P3.5 billion that the past Aquino administration paid to a major world pharmaceutical companies, the Sanofi Pasteur---for the purchase of the Dengvaxia vaccine against the dengue mosquito that’s endemic to our country.


The Dengvacia vaccine is endangering the lives of tens of thousands of Filipino schoolchildren who have been inoculated with it. Of the 731,000 schoolchildren vaccinated, at last count nearly a thousand young students fell sick over five months after receiving the first of three doses. 30 of these cases were considered serious enough for hospitalization, and at least four deaths have already been recorded.

But just as serious, the Dengvaxia deal has also made us the laughing stock of the international pharmaceutical world, as we try to collect P3.5 billion in tax-payers’ money from Sanofi Pasteur---a lawsuit that we know would take an awful lot of money to win in an international court.  We also  know very well that international sympathy will not be with us on this case.

Why? Because we entered into the contract with Sanofi in a rush, without the due diligence needed to study such a delicate health issue, and obviously with another aim in mind---the political angle.  The almost inevitable conclusion is that the Liberal Party, then in power, was rushing to raise kickback funds to help finance its campaign for the May 2016 elections.


The entire science community in this country, except those affiliated with the Department of Health, is appalled at the lack of due diligence,  the rush to contract with the vaccine maker and the subversion of procedures defined by law. The worried Filipino public, in trying to fully understanding what happened in this monumental fiasco, is likely to suspect--- as do a good number of senators in the Senate Blue Ribbon committee--- that efforts were directed toward raising funds for the national elections of  May 2016.

Dr. Anthony Dans of the National Academy of Science and Technology, recently testifying before the Blue Ribbon Committee, made a very good suggestion that goes straight into the heart of the problem of the Dengvaxia anomaly.  Dr. Dans was quoted in the Inquirer as suggesting the enactment of “legislation that would set how ‘science should be assessed’ and ‘deal with the separation (of the) people assessing science and (the) people rendering policy.”


In other words, Dr. Dans was saying that the decision-makers in the DOH---those who decide to buy the vaccine--- should respect the scientists who are trained for many years and often in renowned institutions abroad, to assess its safeness and efficacy. These are, mainly, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), which was created from the former Bureau of Food & Drugs in 2008, and the Philippine National Drug Formulary (PNDF) which decides the scientific basis for procurement of drug products, under Administrative Order No. 8 issued in 2006.

What happened in the case of Dengvaxia and Sanofi, Dr. Dans told the committee, “was BAD SCIENCE” (underscoring mine)---the policy makers overruled the scientists.  Dans cited as “victims” of this “bad science” the WHO, the DOH, the physicians who ended up prescribing the medicines and the patients on the receiving end. 


The chronology of events as compiled by CNN Philippines encourages the conclusion of wrong use of power by the Health Department headed by Secretary Janette Garin and inevitable collusion among certain agencies of DOH---the corrupt for the fund of it and the uncorrupt because they were overruled and scared for their tenure.

In November 2014  President Aquino met with the Sanofi Senior VP in the Asia Region, Jean Luc Lowinski, at the Philippine Embassy in Beijing. In June 2015 Secretary Garin negotiates with Sanofi to reduce the cost of the vaccine.  In October 2015, Sanofi applies at the DOH for inclusion of its vaccine in the Philippine National Formulary. So far so good.

By December 1, 2015, in the sidelines of the UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris, Aquino and Garin met Sanofi officials in the French capital where they were treated royally.  Nine days later  Garin submits a proposal to the Budget Dept. to buy three million doses of Dengvaxia, and gives it marketing approval in our country 12 days later.

This made PH the first to license its use for the prevention of dengue in Asia.


The succeeding events came with rapidity and show where the corruption possibly came in. The FDA approves the drug for preventing diseases caused by all four dengue types, and on Dec. 28, 2015, the DOH-Family Health office submits a request to Garin to exempt Dengvaxia from being included in the Philippine National Formulary, which, in turn, exempted it from review by the Formulary Executive Council (FEC), THE HIGHEST OFFICE THAT DETERMINES WHICH DRUGS GO INTO THE NATIONAL LIST OF ALLOWED DRUGS IN PH.

A day later, the Budget Dept. issues a P3.5 billion Special Allotment Release Order (the controversial SARO of old again rears its ugly head here) to Garin’s office for the vaccines. The Philippine Children’s Medical Center makes a P3-billion purchase order for the vaccines WITHOUT  FEC APPROVAL. Garin  issues a Certificate of Exemption for the vaccines to be pilot-tested in NCR, Region III and IV-A with a big hoopla.


The rain on Garin's coming-out party came in March 2016 when WHO released a paper asserting that Dengvaxia “may be ineffective or may even increase that risk in those who are seronegative at the time of first vaccination.” WHO called for more studies, but Garin already issued a P3 billion disbursement voucher to PCMC to fund the purchase from Zuellig Pharma, its distributor. The vaccines were paid for by the government.
The government kicked off its immunization program in three doses, one every six months. But the WHO released another paper stressing that Dengvaxi “may act as a silent natural infection that primes seronegative vaccines to experience a secondary-like infection upon their first exposure to dengue virus.” 


As CNN pointed out, WHO stressed that the vaccine “may be ineffective or may theoretically even increase future risk of hospitalization or severe dengue illness in those who are seronegative at the time of the first vaccination, regardless of age.” Another warning from the Imperial College of London's study which asserted that Dengvaxia could lead to an increase in number of cases of the disease, if not implemented correctly.

The Singapore Health Sciences Authority also piped in with “postulated risk” of the Sanofi vaccine. Factors were now conspiring to stop Dengvaxia in its tracks.


That month new Health Secretary Paulynn Ubial of the Duterte administration suspended the school-based immunization program and both chambers of the new Congress conducted their own probe of the anomalous transaction. Secretary Francisco Duque, who took over from Ubial, sustained the suspension,

The hearings on Dengvaxia will continue. Former President Aquino, in answer to summons, testified that no one advised him against procuring Dengvaxia (in other words, walang alam). A P3.5 billion outlay for imported vaccine and he is unaware of it? Secretary Duque pinned the blame entirely on his predecessor, Janette Garin.

I totally agree with Sen. J. V. Ejercito: those responsible for the bloody mess should be charged asap---with P-Noy and Garin possibly with technical malversation. The Grinches.