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NEWS IN FOCUS / February: Love and hate in the time of Digong

The first day of February turned Red with the arrest of National Democratic Front (NDF) consultant Rafael Baylosis.

It was the first demonstration of police compliance to President Duterte’s order to arrest NDF consultants after the cancelling of the peace talks last November.

The next day, police arrested Rommel Dorango Salinas, secretary of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), in Ozamiz City.

NDFP leader Jose Maria Sison (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

NDFP Executive Committee member Luis Jalandoni said the arrests were illegal, citing the NDF’s Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) with the government in 1995.

However, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said the JASIG no longer held true because the peace talks had been cancelled.

Exiled Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) founder Jose Maria “Joma” Sison warned that NPA rebels could attack and kill one government soldier a day to force the government back to the peace negotiating table.

The last three weeks of February saw the Marines boosting anti-New People’s Army (NPA) operations in Northern Luzon and the military saying politicians are funding communist rebels. On February 26, a ranking NPA political officer in the Caraga Region is arrested by joint Army and police operatives.

IN, OUT

February was a month of appointments, resignations, sackings, and extensions. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) commissioner Blas James Viterbo resigned from his post for health reasons.

The appointments of Social Security System (SSS) chair Amado Valdez and SSS Commissioner Jose Gabriel “Pompee” La Viña were not renewed while the term of Gen. Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa as Philippine National Police (PNP) chief was extended.

PNP Chief Gen. Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa

President Duterte appointed Noel Felongco as the new chairperson of the Presidential Commission for the Urban Poor (PCUP), replacing Terry Ridon who was fired for frequent trips abroad.

As reported in the media, Felongco was once president of the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Laban ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) Central Visayas and a former environment undersecretary.

Duterte also appointed Eduardo V. Manalo, the Executive Minister of the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) as Special Envoy for the President for Overseas Filipino Concerns.

On the matter concerning the controversial Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) 2017 Christmas party, the President cleared PCSO general manager Alexander Balutan after the latter was accused by the agency’s board member Sandra Cam of throwing a lavish Christmas party. Duterte said there was nothing wrong with the Christmas party of the PCSO held in a five-star hotel.

EMBATTLED PNOY

From the first to the second week of February, two charges were filed against Former President Benigno Aquino III and members of his former Cabinet  by the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC) in connection with the controversy surrounding the dengue vaccine, Dengvaxia.

Former Pres. Benigno Aquino III  (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

The first, a complaint, lodged with the Commission on Elections (Comelec), charged that the P3.5 billion public funds used to procure Dengvaxia was released 45 days before the May 2016 national elections, allegedly in violation of the Omnibus Election Code.

A second complaint was lodged with the Department of Justice. Together with the an organization called the Vanguard of the Philippine Constitution, the VACC charged Aquino, former Budget Secretary Butch Abad, former Health Secretary Janette Garin, and executives of Zuellig and Sanofi Pasteur pharmaceutical companies with graft, malversation of public funds, causing undue injuries and violations of the procurement law.

As this developed, former Health Secretary Garin and the Doctors for Public Welfare (DPW)—led by former Health Secretary Esperanza Cabral— called on the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) to stop performing autopsies on suspected Dengvaxia victims.

The DPW cited a clinical review conducted by Philippine General Hospital (PGH) forensic pathologists on 14 dead children, saying that the review determined that the deaths were not linked to the anti-dengue vaccine, except for one, which may be “causally” associated with Dengvaxia.

DPW questioned the correctness of the diagnosis of Dr. Erwin Erfe, PAO forensic expert, which linked the deaths of all autopsied children to Dengvaxia.

The next day, the VACC slammed efforts to stop the public autopsy of Dengvaxia victims, adding that the autopsies were made upon the request of the families of the victims who were mostly children.

A total of 830,000 children received doses of the Dengvaxia vaccine.

On the third week of February, CNN Philippines reported that  Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said they are preparing to file a civil case against pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur for its refusal to refund some P1.6 billion worth of used doses of Dengvaxia.

Other than charges related to the Dengvaxia mess, former President Aquino is also facing graft and corruption and usurpation of authority charges in connection with the 2015 Mamasapano massacre, where 44 police commandos perished in a covert anti-terrorist operation.

The Sandiganbayan has suspended the hearing on this case after the Supreme Court issued a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) in response to a petition filed by the Office of the Solicitor General.

The OSG’s petition asked the SC to compel the Office of the Ombudsman to file charges of reckless imprudence resulting in multiple homicide against Aquino, former police chief Alan Purisima, and former Special Action Force director Getulio Napeñas.

GOING AFTER DU30

If former President Aquino found himself in several tight spots in February, President Duterte got his share of unwanted controversy as International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutors began their preliminary examination on his “war on drugs.”

The examination, as reported by Reuters, was a review of whether crimes against humanity had been committed and whether the Hague-based court has jurisdiction to bring suspects to trial.

The process may take several years, the ICC said, as this will include gathering information on whether any crimes were committed, whether they are serious enough to be admissible in court and whether the ICC has jurisdiction. International law states that the ICC can only prosecute crimes when a member state fails to do so.

Foreign Affairs Sec. Alan Peter Cayetano  (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

Towards the end of February, Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said that the United Nations can send anyone to the Philippines to conduct investigations on President Duterte’s anti-illegal drugs campaign, except UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard.

Cayetano added that Callamard had lost credibility insofar as the Philippine government is concerned.

Meanwhile, the Ombudsman junked the plunder case lodged by Senator Antonio Trillanes against Duterte, even as the senator opened another controversy, this time linking Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Tesoro Go, Special Assistant to the President, to the P 15.5-billion frigate deal for the Philippine Navy (PN).

The frigate acquisition, according to a BusinessMirror report, was initiated by the Aquino administration in October 2015 to beef up the country’s territorial defense, as well as disaster response capabilties and “reinforce the Navy’s capable warships, including two former US Coast Guard ships.”

During the senate probe for the frigate deal, defense officials cleared Go of committing any anomaly.

For his part, Go lambasted Rappler and the Philippine Daily Inquirer for what he termed as “irresponsible” reportage on the frigate project.

DEATH IN KUWAIT

Last February 9, facing the media and the world in a press conference held in Davao, his home city, an enraged Duterte ranted: “The Filipino is no slave to anyone, anywhere, and everywhere.”

Duterte expressed outrage over the violent death of Filipina domestic worker Joanna Daniela Demafelis in Kuwait.

Joanna Daniela Demafelis, Filipina domestic worker found dead in Kuwait.

Media reports said the bruised and fractured body of Demafelis was kept in a freezer for more than a year and was only discovered when police entered her apartment.

Duterte said he wanted OFWs out of Kuwait in 72 hours. He also banned OFW deployment in the Middle East nation.

OFW deployment bans has, from time to time, been issued. But these did not include Kuwait, despite continuing reports of employer abuse leading to the deaths of Filipina domestic helpers in that Middle Eastern country.

In 2009, during the administration of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, a deployment ban was announced, covering the countries of Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Nigeria.

Two years later, in 2011, the Aquino administration declared a temporary deployment ban to 41 countries and approved OFW deployment to 49 countries.

Kuwait and five other countries (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Singapore, and Bahrain—all top OFW destinations, were not included in either list.

DFA officials said the five nations were only “partially compliant” with Philippine government standards regarding the protection of overseas Filipino workers (OFW) and  were thus, still being reviewed by the DFA.

In 2012, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) listed 182 countries where Filipinos will be allowed to work, including Kuwait.

Kuwait has asked the Philippine government to reconsider the deployment ban, even as the Philippine government said that the ban may also cover other countries.

Reports during the last week of February said that the suspects in the OFWs murder had been arrested.

SERENO, RAPPLER

In the last week of February, House Committee on Justice said that Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno could be impeached by the middle of March.

Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Reports were rife that the Justices wanted the Chief Justice to quit. On the last day of February, Sereno said she had agreed to go on indefinite leave but stressed that she was not stepping down as the country’s top magistrate.

In a statement released to the media, Sereno said she was taking an indefinite leave to prepare for her impeachment trial in the Senate.

Also on the last day of February, CNN Philippines reported that Rappler’s foreign investor Omidyar Network announced that it was donating its $1.5-million (around ₱78 million) investment to the media agency’s 14 Filipino managers, in a move to resolve foreign ownership issues.

The news came after Rappler reporter Pia Ranada-Robles was barred from entering Malacañang and covering President Duterte.

Omidyar Network, owned by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, however clarified it is not “cutting ties” with Rappler, CNN reported.

CHINA AND BORACAY

In the first week of February, Philippine Daily Inquirer came out with exclusive new photos, stating that, “China is almost finished transforming seven reefs claimed by the Philippines in the Spratly archipelago into island fortresses, in a bid to dominate the heavily disputed South China Sea.”

The exclusive report quickly crossed over to other dailies across Asia and the United States like the The Straits Times and The Guardian, to name a few.

On another island, toward the last half of February, another controversy was brewing. This time, the issue was tourism.

Boracay, the jewel and bonafide dollar-maker of the Philippine tourism sector was threatened with closure by an irate President Duterte who called the island’s much-publicized seawaters a “sewer pool.”

A Senate inquiry in aid of legislation was conducted to gauge the actual situation on the world-famous island. By the end of Feburary, Local Government officer-in-charge Eduardo Año said there were plans to place Boracay under a state of calamity for six months and to shut down establishments for 60 days.

PINOY LOVE & CAREER

For all of February’s tensions and controversies, Filipinos remained upbeat toward love and career.

An SWS poll that came out just in time for Valentine’s Day, revealed that 84% of Filipinos still believed that they can succeed in both love and career.

And as if to prove this assertion, the Home Development Mutual Fund, more popularly known as the Pag-IBIG Fund, held a mass wedding in 16 venues on Valentine’s Day.

Book lovers had their fill the next day, when the Big Bad Wolf, touted as the “largest book fair in the world” opened at the World Trade Center in Pasay City with over two million books up for grabs.

The book fair was open all day, all night and culminated on February 25, a special day for Filipinos who participated in the EDSA People Power Revolution.

Now on its 32nd staging at the People Power Monument, this year’s festivities saw former President Fidel Ramos and Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno celebrating the moment without the presence of traditional EDSA stalwarts like former President Benigno Aquino III or Vice-President Lenny Robredo.

Over at the PNP, the Love Month saw 398 errant cops fired and 1,216 subjected to disciplinary action.

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