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Our issue for April 29, 2006

PHILIPPINES FREE PRESS

April 29, 2006

Main Features

1.Cover: Constitutional Amendment (brought to you by Pag-IBIG Fund)

2. Politicizing the Death Penalty

In a clear attempt to appease the Catholic bishops, who have expressed alarm over her administration’s haste to amend the Constitution, President Arroyo announces that she is commuting all death sentences to life imprisonment. She times the announcement with Easter to conceal the political intention of her decision under a shroud of spiritual pretense. The bishops are glad, of course, but they are by no means fooled into dropping their uneasiness about what the administration is doing in the villages. Lipa-Lingayen Archbishop Oscar Cruz says in a television interview that the purpose of Mrs. Arroyo’s announcement is clearly intended to mollify the church, but the church is not changing its stand that the nation should continue the search for the truth about the 2004 presidential election. In their Easter message, the only one besides the Pope’s that counts—politicians have no business issuing messages on religious occasions—the bishops carefully choose their words to send a real message to the nation and to Mrs. Arroyo: Jaro Archbishop Angel Lagdameo, president of the bishops conference, says “forgiveness,” an “Easter fruit of the tree of the cross” will lead to “a birth of a new family in the risen Christ.” Filipinos, he says, “will taste the happiness of God, when we understand the meaning of Jesus eating and drinking with tax collectors and prostitutes.” He adds, “The fruit of repentance is peace and happiness with God.” Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales, archbishop of Manila, calls on Filipinos to imitate Christ, saying, “His pursuit of good for humans was unchanging, because he was bonded with what was true, what was good, and what was honest.” Ouch. Do you think the Palace gets the message? The hides in this administration are too thick to even be affected. Mrs. Arroyo expects no political gains from her decision, Palace officials say. Respect the voice of the people, they say, as if the people were truly the ones behind the signature campaign for the amendment of the Constitution. Mrs. Arroyo’s decision to use the death penalty for political ends has led to the revival of the debate on the maximum punishment. Round up.

            By Ricky S. Torre and Wendell Vigilia

3. Brawl in the Courts

The government-sponsored group gathering signatures to force the amendment of the Constitution is taking the campaign to the Comelec on April 30, following an administration-set timetable. Under this timetable, the Comelec should be done with the verification of the signatures in May, call a plebiscite in June where the proposal to change the presidential system to parliamentary system would be approved—the administration would see to that—and an “interim parliament” would sit by July to work out the rest of the amendments to the Constitution. The Comelec has already said that it will verify the signatures, never mind the 1997 Supreme Court ruling that says the election agency is “permanently enjoined” from entertaining any petition for a people’s initiative the Constitution. That ruling distinguishes between “amendment” and “revision” of the Constitution, but the Comelec seems to be damned sure it can survive a challenge. The minority in the House of Representatives is ready for a brawl in the courts all over the country. When Sigaw ng Bayan goes to the Comelec, the minority, with the help of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, will file for restraining orders in the local courts, a fight expected to eventually reach the Supreme Court.

            By Guiller de Guzman and Wendell Vigilia

4. Untrustworthy Dog

Even President Arroyo’s allies in Congress support former chief justice Hilario Davide Jr.’s recommendation to overhaul the Commission on Elections. But would Mrs. Arroyo allow more than just “structural reforms” in the Comelec now that she enjoys the election watchdog’s full loyalty? Davide’s recommendations include changes in the commission, which has two vacant seats. If the nominees to those vacancies are coming from Davide, however, Mrs. Arroyo may not be willing to use her persuasive power to convince two from the current members to give way. Besides the sitting commissioners, especially the chairman, Benjamin Abalos, are resisting replacement, pointing out that they cannot be forced to leave office because their terms are set by the Constitution. But even a constitutional body that has lost the people’s trust needs to be reformed if it must regain that trust. The five committees of the House of Representatives that investigated the Arroyo tapes have recommended automation in the Comelec, and there is a bill in the Senate, introduced by Sen. Richard Gordon, that would modernize the commission. Gordon wants the Comelec to automate first before the government goes full blast into amending the Constitution. But automation is only a partial solution to the problem with the Comelec: the best computers may assure clean balloting, but not the vote count, which is presided over by election officials of questionable integrity. What are Davide’s other recommendations? The Palace is not saying.

            By Guiller de Guzman, Butch Serrano and Wendell Vigilia

5. Sanitized Report

Nobody was surprised when the military announced the results of its investigation into the alleged rigging of the 2004 presidential election because everybody expected the generals involved to be cleared. Even Brig. Gen. Francisco Gudani, the only military official who appeared at the Senate investigation into the Arroyo tapes and admitted that President Arroyo’s husband, Jose Miguel Arroyo, went to Mindanao during the election and gave away millions of pesos for an illegal operation that would give the election to Mrs. Arroyo, was cleared. None of the generals allegedly involved was interviewed during the investigation. But 70 people gave testimony, and the military found nothing against the generals. Who were those 70 people? The political opposition is daring the military to release the full report, but the military’s answer is predictable: no clearance from Mrs. Arroyo, no report.

            By Guiller de Guzman and Butch Serrano

6. These Are Bad Times to Be Children

At least in the Philippines, where seemingly insoluble poverty forces parents to allow kids to work, often as beggars in the streets, or just neglect them, making them wander around the city in search of food. They are rounded up by police and taken to government-run shelters. If their parents cannot be found, they grow up in the shelters as government wards. Those lucky enough to be born to parents who can send them to public schools are still neglected, not by their parents or by their teachers but by the government, which spends more to pay its foreign debts than for education. Because the government spends too little for education, teachers are poorly paid. Teachers spend more time trying to earn extra on the side, neglecting their students, who, in turn, leave elementary school unprepared for high school. Gone are the times when the Philippine government really cared for children and their education. Children, we often say, are the hope of the Fatherland. Alas, that’s just a saying now.

            By Ramiro C. Alvarez

Two editorials

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Our issue for April 22, 2006

PHILIPPINES FREE PRESS

April 22, 2006 Issue
 
Main Features

1.Cover: NPC Rep. Generoso DC Tulagan of Pangasinan

2. The Senators’ Initiative

Senate President Franklin Drilon, Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr., and Senators Panfilo Lacson, Jinggoy Estrada and Jamby Madrigal have launched a national movement to force President Arroyo to step down. They are going around the country rallying people to support the opposition in Manila with movements of their own. Their intention is to show the world the national outrage that the Palace claims does not exist, unlike the massive opposition to the rule of Thaksin Shinawatra that forced the Thai premier to step down last week.The United Opposition, led by Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay, is adding to the pressure on Mrs. Arroyo by daring her to call a snap election, but the thick faces in the Palace say the answer to the country’s problems is not new elections but revising the Constitution. Only direct people’s action can break down this thick-hide resistance, but how? Mrs. Arroyo has the military, the police, and maybe the courts on her side and not even criticism in the international press can shame her. Her government is protesting The New York Times editorial about her heavy-handed tactics in dealing with opposition to her rule, even inviting the Times editors to come to Manila to see for themselves that the Philippines is a democratic country. Don’t Palace officials know that the New York Times has reporters and correspondents going in and out of the Philippines and seeing how riot police beat protesters out of the streets? It is possible that those journalists have already observed how the Arroyo administration is manufacturing a people’s initiative to force a revision of the Constitution, but we bet you the Palace will blame the unfavorable reports on the opposition. The Catholic Church has already noticed how the government is carrying out the signature campaign, expressing alarm over the haste with which the government is trying to amend the Constitution. But can the latest statement from the Catholic bishops galvanize the people to unite, as the Thais did, and join the senators’ initiative? It is a shame that the Filipinos, who invented people power, are not moving to use that power on an increasingly despotic ruler while the Thais have succeeded in forcing out of office a leader who is only accused of corruption.

            By Ricky S. Torre and Wendell Vigilia

3. What Are They Counting On?

The Arroyo administration is treading on a very thin line by launching a bogus people’s initiative to force the amendment of the Constitution for an immediate shift to the parliamentary system. Administration officials are aware of the 1997 Supreme Court ruling that there is no law that allows the people to initiate a revision of the Constitution but they are pushing critics of the government signature campaign to challenge the government in the High Tribunal. What are they counting on? PresidentArroyo’s latest appointee to the Supreme Court, Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr., answered that question on Friday. The Court, he said, can reverse its 1997 ruling depending on the “wisdom of the times.” The opposition is right in deciding not to go the Supreme Court, but they will bring charges against any official or group that touches the signatures gathered from the campaign.

            By Guiller de Guzman and Wendell Vigilia

4. Terrifying Bill

Would the Senate pass the terror bill? Written in atrocious English, the bill, as passed by the House of Representatives last Tuesday, is really designed for fighting terrorism, but it has provisions that the government can use to put down opposition to the rule of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The approved bill would penalize anybody, or any group of people, for inciting others to commit acts of terrorism through “speeches, proclamations, and writings.” Given the Arroyo administration’s twisted view of criticism, the opposition has reason to fear the use of the fight against terrorism on them.

          By Guiller de Guzman and Wendell Vigilia

5. Thievery Confirmed

The Commission on Audit has submitted its final report on the campaign finance scandal called “fertilizer scam.” The final audit report shows why farmers received no fertilizer when the Agriculture Department spent P728 million for fertilizer in 2004: the money went to people who were either dead or not farmers and to nonexisting organizations. It took a nationwide audit to determine what happened to the fertilizer fund, earmarked for a hybrid rice program named after President Arroyo, and the findings are as damning as the complaining farmers and the Senate investigators have expected. The operators who ran the scam using the rice program for cover overpriced supposed fertilizer purchases by as much as 682 percent, or by P128 million, not to line their pockets, as corrupt officials usually do, but to create a special fund to finance Mrs. Arroyo’s presidential campaign.

            By Guiller de Guzman and Butch Serrano

6. Easy Way Out

It has been 20 years since the government launched an effort to recover the ill-gotten wealth of  Ferdinand Marcos, but all that the government has gotten back is the equivalent of P35 billion from the late dictator’s Swiss bank accounts. Where’s the rest and how exactly how much is that? There is no way of telling. The ill-gotten wealth watchdog Presidential Commission on Good Government has filed 578 cases against Marcos’s widow, Imelda, involving P220 billion in stolen wealth. Those cases have been gathering dust in Sandiganbayan, the antigraft, for a good part of the past two decades, and the government is nowhere near winning any of them. It may be true that there is at least that much more to recover from the Marcoses, but the government is having difficulty proving it. It is clear from the start that the recovery effort is going to be a war of attrition between the government and the Marcoses, and, after two decades, it looks like it’s the government that’s losing the war. To save face, however, the PCGG says it is willing to initiate compromise talks with Imelda Marcos, who is only too willing to sit down with the government to put an end to all her troubles. The PCGG wants full disclosure, that is, Mrs. Marcos should disclose all other assets that the government has not identified. Does the PCGG really believe Mrs. Marcos and her children will do that?

            By Guiller de Guzman and Nati Nuguid

7. Irrational

Impractical and economically disruptive, President Arroyo’s plan to move major departments of the government to the Visayas and Mindanao is probably dead. No department has moved and none is bold enough to take the lead. Mrs. Arroyo has probably realized the difficulties involved, but she still wants changes in the departments to improve public service. She has issued an order for the departments to “rationalize” their operations. “Rationalize” simply means “reorganize,” that is, shut down unnecessary operations and move staff around. It has been two years since the order to reorganize came down but only the Agrarian Reform Department has submitted a reorganization plan to the Budget Department. The employees of the other departments are resisting reorganization because the plan will surely lead to layoffs and demotions.

            By Ramiro C. Alvarez

Two editorials

Our issue for April 15, 2006

PHILIPPINES FREE PRESS

April 15, 2006 Issue

Main Features

1.Cover: Kampi Rep. Amelia Villarosa

2. Charter Express

In the 1997 case Santiago v. Commission on Elections, the Supreme Court granted the petition of Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago, stopping the Comelec from verifying the signatures gathered by the supposedly private initiative Pirma, and ruling that “the Comelec should be permanently enjoined from entertaining or taking cognizance of any petition for initiative on amendments to the Constitution until a sufficient law shall have been validly enacted to provide for the implementation of the system.” That is very clear even to students of law. But the Arroyo administration doesn’t care what the Supreme Court ruling says. Confirming suspicions that her government is behind the signature campaign to force the amendment of the Constitution by people’s initiative, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo endorses the signature campaign as an expression of the “true power of the people,” but without admitting that her government is financing the bogus people’s initiative. “The old-time politicians of the status quo better stand back because this train has left the station,” she says. “It is time for politicians to stand back or get run over.” Her use of the train analogy is apt: her government is railroading the amendment of the Constitution to beat a July deadline for an “interim parliament” (see No. 3) where no complaint for Mrs. Arroyo’s impeachment can be filed because there is no impeachment in a parliamentary government. What the administration is doing is running over the rule of law; anybody who gets hurt can just go the Supreme Court to challenge the administration’s action. And that is exactly what the Comelec is doing, verifying the signatures despite the clear words of the 1997 Supreme Court ruling and daring the political opposition to question the verification in the high tribunal. The Senate is considering doing just that, but the minority in the House of Representatives is not stepping into the administration trap. Challenging the administration’s actions in the Supreme Court could result in a reversal of the 1997 ruling, and the administration is relying on support from the majority on the Court to reverse that ruling. Mrs. Arroyo has appointed former Court of Appeals justice Presbitero J. Velasco Jr. to fill the 15th and last vacant seat on the Supreme Court. She now has 11 appointees on the Court, including Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban who, although appointed to the Court by President Fidel Ramos was appointed chief justice by Mrs. Arroyo. But the House minority’s fear is based on uncertainty about the judicial independence of the majority on the Supreme Court. What if the magistrates are determined to uphold the rule of law? Didn’t President Corazon Aquino and President Fidel Ramos appoint justices to the Supreme Court who ruled against them later? The House minority’s plan is to sue government officials who would violate the Supreme Court ruling.

            By Ricky S. Torre and Wendell Vigilia

3. ‘Interim Parliament’

The people’s initiative applies only to specific amendments to the Constitution? Okay. Since that’s what the Constitution says, then let’s turn to Plan B. According to a plan by Speaker Jose de Venecia, the Comelec can finish the verification of the signature’s gathered by the Interior Department by May. After that, the proposal to change the presidential system of government to the parliamentary system can be submitted to the people for approval in a referendum. By July there will be no more Congress. There will be an “interim parliament” composed of the present members of the House of Representatives and the Senate that will work out the rest of the proposed amendments to the Constitution. It can be done. It will be done, period. Those who don’t agree, just shoot yourselves.

            By Guiller de Guzman and Wendell Vigilia

4. Yes, They Cheated

It has always been known that fraud marred the 2004 elections, but it is only on Monday that an official of the Commission on Elections admitted it. Answering questions during the continuation of the Senate Committee on National Defense’s investigation into the Arroyo tapes, Election Commissioner Ressurreccion Borra says there indeed was cheating in the elections two years ago, but not only one side did it. It doesn’t matter. The important thing is that even a senior election official has confirmed before an investigative body that there was cheating during the elections. Malacañang may consider Borra’s testimony irrelevant, but the cheating in at least six regions of the country that Borra has confirmed makes the charge of electoral fraud against President Arroyo even more credible. To what will this disclosure lead?

            By Guiller de Guzman and Butch Serrano

5. Let’s Play Jue . .

The small-town lottery is a good idea to eradicate the illegal jueteng. It’s legal, it will be used for charity, and it will benefit local governments and even the police. But how sure is the government that it can successfully replace jueteng, that is, jueteng will be no more. Right now, the jueteng lords are lining up for permits, to be sure to use the lottery as cover for their jueteng operations. The police are unhappy, because their take will be limited. The local politicians, too.

            By Guiller de Guzman and Nati Nuguid

Two editorials

Our issue for April 8, 2006

PHILIPPINES FREE PRESS

April 8, 2006 Issue

Main Features

1.Cover: Philippine Veterans Bank

2. Government’s Initiative

In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress had failed to pass a law that would allow the application of the people’s initiative provision of the Constitution to changing the Constitution. The people’s initiative provision applies only to specific amendments to the Constitution and to local legislation, not to a total revision of the Constitution. The ruling frustrated President Fidel Ramos’s and Jose de Venecia’s attempts to force the amendment of the Constitution to extend their terms of office and those of all elective officials. That’s not too long ago, but the Arroyo administration seems to have already forgotten it, or perhaps is ignoring it, confident that it can win a challenge because 12 of the 14 magistrates on the Supreme Court are appointees of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Perhaps accepting that it cannot force the amendment of the Constitution without the Senate’s approval, the administration has turned to people’s initiative, with the Department of the Interior and Local Government issuing an order on March 10 directing local governments to call the villages to assemblies on March 25 and October 21 to gather voter signatures for a petition to amend the Constitution. No information campaign preceded the March 25 assemblies, so that people across the country went to the assemblies without knowing what it was they were signing. But perhaps it didn’t matter. Cash, rice, and groceries were given away in exchange for signatures, an exercise that Malacañang calls “democracy in action.” Private legal groups are expected to challenge the legality of the signature campaign in the Supreme Court. The minority in the House, which has already gathered more than enough signatures to block the majority plan to force a constituent assembly, has promised to question the campaign’s legality in the Supreme Court if the administration insists on using it to amend the Constitution. But the shameless allies of Mrs. Arroyo in the House are even challenging the Senate to a fight to the last man. The Constitution will be amended, whether the Philippines likes it or not.

            By Ricky S. Torre, Butch Serrano, and Wendell Vigilia

3. Connecting the Dots

A fake passport is no proof of electoral fraud, says Virgilio Garcillano. Well, not the passport itself, but its use to mislead investigators shows that indeed Garcillano had something to hide and he hid it by lying to House investigators. Only the most stupid sleuth will fail to connect the dots. Sen. Panfilo Lacson and three members of the House have already filed perjury charges against Garcillano, and other members of the House minority are filing more charges against him: 20 counts of perjury, based on the number of times he told the House that he never left the country at the height of the Arroyo tapes scandal last year.

            By Guiller de Guzman and Wendell Vigilia

4. Confirmed

The Commission on Audit has confirmed that P100 million in recovered Marcos ill-gotten wealth was used in Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s 2004 presidential campaign. The money was used in buying fertilizer at excessive overpricing that ran into the millions of pesos so that cash could be raised to push Mrs. Arroyo’s campaign in the countryside.

            By Guiller de Guzman and Butch Serrano

5. Continuation of Joseph Estrada’s testimony at Sandiganbayan

            By Guiller de Guzman and Nati Nuguid

6. Intolerable Cruelty

On March 8, Maria Delmar Redota, 9, a second-grader at Silangan Elementary School in Upper Bicutan village, Taguig, came home obviously unwell. At first, she refused to talk or eat. Then she became feverish and all the more refused to eat. Her parents took her to a hospital and she was found to be suffering from tonsillitis. A week later, she was dead. It could not be tonsillitis that killed the girl. A classmate of Delmar told her parents that a substitute teacher, a Mrs. Brenda Elbambuena, punished Delmar and another girl for sharpening their pencils in the classroom and scattering shavings on the floor. The teacher, the parents had found out, stuffed the pencil shavings in the mouths of the girls and forced them to swallow them. The other girl, Justine Caraga, also 9 years old, pretended to swallow the shavings, then spat them out the moment Elbambuena turned her back. Delmar did not know what to do and swallowed the shavings. The shavings could have hurt her throat and the lead could have poisoned her, and that could have killed her on March 15. Elbambuena has been suspended and the Education Department will open an investigation into her intolerable cruelty. Also under investigation is Susana Quiambao, who forced quiz flunkers in her Grade 6 class in General Santos City to undress and swallow chili. The Education Department’s Order No. 92, issued in 1992, forbids teachers to use corporal punishment on students. The Revised Penal Code and the Child Abuse Law are also clear about physical injuries to minors. Not to some teachers it seems.

            By Guiller de Guzman and Nati Nuguid

Two editorials