Updated May 09, 2009 12:00 AM
Public safety comes first, so the Supreme Court has affirmed with finality its ruling that the oil depot in Manila has to go. The SC affirmed the validity of Manila City Ordinance 8027, declaring the 36-hectare area in Pandacan where the oil depot sits as a commercial area that must be cleared of the fuel terminals used by the “Big 3” — Petron Corp., Pilipinas Shell Petroleum Corp. and Chevron Philippines Inc.
The SC had originally ordered the shutdown of the depot in February last year “to protect the residents of Manila from the catastrophic devastation that will surely occur in case of a terrorist attack on the Pandacan terminal.” The ruling is appreciated by residents of Pandacan and neighboring areas. But the incident should also prod the government to improve zoning regulations to prevent a repeat of this controversy.
The “Big 3” had fought the ordinance all the way to the Supreme Court, and their arguments cannot be taken lightly. Both the Spanish colonial government and the Americans who took over had designated Pandacan as an industrial zone. With this classification, the oil companies built their storage and distribution facilities in Pandacan a century ago, and a housing facility for the workers was built around the site. Over the years manufacturing plants moved out of the district while the number of private homes grew.
Relocating to a still unspecified site and building a new depot will cost the oil companies billions of pesos. Once they select a new site, there is no guarantee that they will be able to build their depot. The project could be opposed by residents worried about environmental and public safety hazards. The oil companies have said that a depot built too far away from Metro Manila could raise pump prices in the nation’s premier region.
Investors have long complained about the uncertainty of doing business in this country, with legitimate contracts being overturned and rules being changed after a lot of money has been poured into certain projects. Though the circumstances are slightly different in the case of the Pandacan oil depot, this is another addition to the growing pile of cautionary tales for foreign investors in the Philippines.
In the past decades, new industrial areas have been developed around the country and the government has invited foreign investors to bring their business to those special zones. The government should make sure that those who respond to that invitation will see their investments protected.
Updated April 30, 2009 12:00 AM
Rodolfo Lozada Jr. can surely afford to post the minimal bail bond needed in a criminal case filed against him. But Lozada’s refusal to post bail drives home one point: there are many individuals who should be behind bars or at least on trial in connection with the broadband network deal between the government and China’s ZTE Corp. So who gets a warrant of arrest first? The whistle-blower.
Lozada was arrested yesterday on orders of the Manila Regional Trial Court. The warrant stems from a perjury case filed by Michael Defensor, President Arroyo’s former chief of staff, who was implicated by Lozada in what he described as an effort to stop him from testifying before the Senate on the ZTE deal.
The fate of the other players in that incident explains Lozada’s refusal to post bail. The Malacañang official directly implicated in the effort to keep Lozada quiet, Manuel Gaite, has been promoted from deputy executive secretary to commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission, replacing an official at the heart of the Legacy Group scandal. The security escorts who “greeted” Lozada upon his arrival at the NAIA from Hong Kong have disappeared, their reported ties to the Presidential Security Group swept under the rug. Other officials mentioned by Lozada in the attempt to keep him away from the Senate are still with the government.
Beyond that incident upon his arrival, which Lozada suspected was a kidnapping attempt or worse, no one has been prosecuted in connection with the ZTE broadband scandal. Benjamin Abalos, though forced to quit shortly before the end of his tenure as chairman of the Commission on Elections, is enjoying his retirement. Leandro Mendoza, who signed the deal with ZTE executives in Boao, China in the presence of President Arroyo, still has his job. And Romulo Neri, the former director general of the National Economic and Development Authority who initially disclosed a P200-million bribe allegedly offered by Abalos, now manages billions of pesos of the private sector’s pension fund after he invoked executive privilege and learned to keep his mouth shut.
Only one man is being punished in connection with a $329-million deal that the government was forced to scrap: Rodolfo Lozada Jr. Michael Defensor is well within his right to want to clear his name, but Lozada’s prosecution is rubbing salt on a festering wound. It is a good example of the selective justice that has come to be associated with this administration.
Updated April 24, 2009 12:00 AM
Once upon a time Asians came to the Philippines to avail themselves of top-quality education. Today, despite free, compulsory elementary and high school education, an estimated 5.2 million Filipinos are illiterate. The country also has one of the highest dropout rates in Asia, worse than the situation in Indonesia and even Vietnam.
These disheartening facts come from the Department of Education, whose officials want stronger literacy programs for both youths and adults. DepEd officials warn that the growing illiteracy rate would take its toll on the economy. Illiteracy and the slide in the quality of Philippine education are already taking their toll on national competitiveness, as shown in numerous international surveys.
Local executives must show leadership in improving the nation’s literacy level. A literacy mapping project undertaken by the Department of the Interior and Local Government among fifth and sixth class municipalities – the most economically backward in the country – showed that literacy programs were not making much impact. DILG officials observed that literacy programs were not given priority by certain local governments.
Education programs have rarely attracted politicians’ interest. Some politicians, believing that patronage thrives on poverty and poor education, deliberately shelve programs to raise literacy levels and improve the quality of education in their jurisdictions. In some underdeveloped areas, there are simply not enough funds for literacy programs.
But the problem cannot be left to fester. In the global economy, quality education is indispensable. Development is accelerated in countries that give priority to educating their citizens. Emerging economic powers including China and India are investing heavily in public education, providing their people with the tools they need to excel in a highly competitive global environment. Countries that do not treat education with the same urgency risk being left behind. In the Philippines, educators themselves are sounding the alarm. It would be folly to ignore the warning.
In the jungles of Sulu, hostages who are mysteriously found abandoned by their captors are widely suspected to have regained their freedom through the payment of ransom. In the case of the mostly European hostages taken from the Malaysian island resort of Sipadan, the Abu Sayyaf band led by Ghalib “Robot” Andang reportedly earned a whopping $30 million, with the bulk of the amount contributed by the Libyan government. That lucrative caper, suspected to have been brokered by certain government officials who were in cahoots with the bandits, led to more kidnappings by the Abu Sayyaf.
The bandits’ main group later ventured all the way to Palawan to seize hostages from a resort. In that incident, several Filipinos also mysteriously walked free as the Abu Sayyaf dragged the remaining captives deeper into Basilan. Those who regained their freedom denied paying ransom. Left behind were several Filipinos and three Americans, one of whom was decapitated.
Today, the Abu Sayyaf leadership has been decimated, but what’s left of the group is still engaged in kidnapping. Earlier this year the band operating in Sulu seized three volunteers of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Filipina hostage was the first to be freed. The other day it was the turn of the Swiss hostage to walk free. The official version is that he managed to slip away from his captors as government forces were pursuing the bandits. The talk circulating in Mindanao is that the Abu Sayyaf had abandoned Andreas Notter after ransom was paid. Denials were issued yesterday by different offices starting with Malacañang. The fate of Italian hostage Eugenio Vagni is unknown, despite government forces supposedly coming within just 500 meters of the bandits before Notter walked free.
Paying ransom to secure the safe release of a hostage is fine if the payment also leads to the capture of the kidnappers and recovery of the ransom. Allowing bandits to enjoy the proceeds of their caper guarantees more kidnappings. In the Zamboanga peninsula and Basilan, groups apart from the Abu Sayyaf have entered the game, snatching teachers and other civilians and demanding ransom. It’s not enough to secure the release of hostages. Their captors must be found and neutralized, and any ransom paid must be recovered. Anyone who benefits from a ransom payment must be punished.
Updated March 12, 2009 12:00 AM
From street lamps in Cebu for the ASEAN summit to bidding for a World Bank-funded road project and now to funds for road repairs, corruption scandals hound the Department of Public Works and Highways.
A 2007 report prepared by the Commission on Audit confirmed allegations hurled by some congressmen that about P50 billion collected as road user’s tax or the Motor Vehicles User’s Charge, paid by the public when a vehicle is registered, has been misused. The tax is administered by the Road Users’ Tax Board, which is headed by the DPWH chief and is under the Office of the President. Yesterday Malacañang said there were inaccuracies in the COA report.
But congressmen and the COA were not the only ones to question the utilization of the road tax. Way back in July 2007, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago had filed a resolution, directing the DPWH and the Road Board to account for the road user’s tax. Under Republic Act 8794, the road tax should be used exclusively for road maintenance and improvement of road drainage, the installation of traffic lights and road safety devices, and air pollution control. The resolution declared: “Since its implementation in 2001, this fund has degenerated into a pork-barrel item, far from its original intention…” The Senate has not tackled the points Santiago raised in her resolution.
The Road Board also includes the secretaries of finance, budget and management, and transportation and communications. The board’s executive director said it is the Land Transportation Office that collects the road tax and remits it to the treasury. All the offices involved in supervising, collecting or utilizing this tax should not conduct an investigation of the alleged fund misuse, especially because the amount involved could warrant an indictment for plunder.
With Malacañang already calling the COA report inaccurate, it looks unlikely that anyone will be found culpable and punished for the alleged anomaly before June 2010. But the COA detailed the possible ways by which the road tax was misused, and the auditors’ work must not go to waste. Those opportunities for fund misuse must be plugged, through the passage of legislation and new administrative rules.
AFTER watching the way the police have been handling the investigation of the death of Trinidad Arteche Etong, ABS-CBN news anchor Ted Failon’s wife, Filipinos have reason to be afraid — very afraid — of their so-called protectors.
From the time the Quezon City police began working on the case, it was clear they wanted to pin down Failon in a murder charge.
With little to go on but a fertile imagination, Superintendent Frank Mabanag, chief of the Quezon City Police District’s Criminal Investigation and Detection Unit, theorized that Etong could have been killed in their Pajero and brought up to the bathroom where Failon claimed to have found her lying in a pool of blood.
Right in his own house, Failon was made to undergo a paraffin test as police investigators gleefully posed behind him for souvenir photos.
Even as Etong was undergoing emergency treatment for a bullet wound to her head, the police “invited” Failon to submit to an investigation that would drag through the night up to the early hours of morning.
Eight hours later, the investigators finally let him go.
But soon after that, Mabanag announced that a “manhunt” had been launched for the broadcaster who, it turned out, had just gone back to the hospital to be with his wife.
When the paraffin test yielded a negative result, a gentler and more humane police force would have taken it as a cue to ease up a bit and give Failon, his kin and his household some space to rest and maybe try to come to terms with the tragedy.
But no, the frustrating outcome seemed only to have roused the Quezon City police to intensify their persecution of everyone closely or remotely involved in the case.
In a series of operations, policemen arrested first, Failon’s two maids, his driver and a utility man, and later, two of his in-laws.
Especially brutal was the arrest of Failon’s sister-in-law, Pamela Trinchera, who was dragged protesting and screaming out of the hospital where her sister was being treated.
The police recommended that all, except Failon’s brother-in-law, be charged with obstruction of justice, an offense the police were hard put to define.
The four house help stand accused of tampering with evidence because they cleaned up the bathroom where Etong was reportedly found and the car in which Etong was brought to the hospital.
All claimed they did it on their own (to spare Failon’s younger daughter the trauma of seeing her mother’s blood, according to the maids) and without any intention of hiding a crime.
It seems not to have occurred to the investigators that if indeed Etong died by her own hand — a possibility they say they have not ruled out — then no crime was committed, in which case they will have to explain what kind of evidence was tampered with — evidence of a non-crime, perhaps?
The case against Trinchera (which the prosecutor mercifully dismissed) was even curiouser.
The police wanted her charged for blocking a procedure that the policemen themselves described as inconclusive.
That was what they said when the paraffin test on Failon yielded a negative result.
Why did they insist on doing a test that has been discredited (according to one forensic expert) on a woman who was fighting for her life?
It is not for us to say whether Etong’s death was suicide or murder.
What we can say is that what the Quezon City police have done is an overkill.
Chief Superintendent Roberto Rosales, the National Capital Region police chief, says the investigation is being conducted carefully and by the book.
But as crime investigations go, this one has been going at lightning speed for a police force that remains clueless about assassinations of two Cabinet undersecretaries, not to mention the murders of scores of journalists and activists.
It is clear that the investigators are rushing to implicate anyone and everyone on anything, and especially Failon if they can.
And the reason is obvious: Failon has been a thorn in the side of the Quezon City police, with his biting radio commentaries on the rubout of suspected car thieves on EDSA a couple of months ago and the recent upsurge of carjacking cases in the city.
This is sweet revenge for some city police officers, and they don’t care who gets hurt.
Neither do they care if the whole nation watches as they wage their vendetta in the glare of television cameras.
Their message to the media and the public is unmistakable: Don’t mess with us or else…
Perhaps it is time Filipinos began to ask whether they should continue to support with their taxes an organization that is going berserk.
Continuing to do so is beginning to look like suicide.
Updated March 20, 2009 12:00 AM
The rating of the Department of Public Works and Highways as the most corrupt government agency in a recent survey was not surprising. Every survey on corruption shows the DPWH in competition with the Bureau of Internal Revenue and the Bureau of Customs for the top slot.
What was new, and disheartening, in Pulse Asia’s February 2009 Nationwide Survey on Corruption was that among the respondents who said they had personally experienced corruption, a high 81 percent opted to keep silent about it. Pulse Asia said keeping silent could be “the most reasonable action to take in light of the experiences of whistle-blowers in publicized cases” such as Rodolfo Lozada Jr.
Lozada and his family are still living on the kindness of nuns and priests of De la Salle University. He faces charges in connection with his former government job. The charges were filed only after he defied the administration and told the Senate what he knew about the national broadband network deal between China’s ZTE Corp. and the Department of Transportation and Communications. He is out of a job, while most of those implicated in that deal have kept theirs or have been promoted, including those he said were involved in the effort to keep him silent.
Other whistle-blowers have suffered worse fates. And after suffering those fates, the worst part is that nothing happens to the corruption cases that they have denounced. After the ZTE deal was scrapped, the administration has tried to wish away the corruption controversy and revive the broadband deal in a new version. Amid bribery allegations, Benjamin Abalos was forced to quit as chairman of the Commission on Elections, a few months short of the end of his fixed term, but he now seems to be enjoying his retirement.
With recent developments, you can’t blame Filipinos who think that blowing the whistle on corruption is an exercise in futility. Who is rewarded in this country, and who are the losers? In the next survey, the number of Filipinos who decide to keep silent in the face of controversy will likely be higher.