Year: 2013

Aquino can stop the P8-B electricity rip-off

(This column appeared on Dec. 23 but we are running it again because of an editing error. Mr. Tiglao’s regular column will resume on January 5.)

That is, if President Aquino is willing to do so, and willing to risk the ire of his corporate backers in the industry. That is, if he has the competence to do so.

The P8-billion rip-off? The super-profits a group of power generators will get as a result of Meralco’s irresponsible purchase from them in November of grossly overpriced electricity, the cost of which is passed on to five million Metro Manila consumers in their December bills.

Based on Meralco’s data, it bought in November from these firms—through the Wholesale Electricity Spot Market (WESM), 9.5 percent of the electricity it distributed, or 286 gigawatts, at an astonishing cost of P9.5 billion, or P33.2 per kilowatt-hour (kWh).

That’s 184 percent the average monthly price electricity sold at the WESM of P11.7 from January to September this year, or 326 percent the average P7.8 price since that market started in 2007.

These firms though spent only P1.5 billion (P5.3/kWh) to P1.9 billion (at P6.4/kWh) at most to produce that power, which means super-profits for them of P7.7 billion to P8 billion.

But Meralco won’t be spending a centavo for that overprice. We will, as it is passed on to our electricity bill this month and the next, with the price shooting up by 30 percent.

There are allegations that the power firms which sold through the WESM at P33 are also owned by the majority owners of Meralco, which would make it not a case of the distributor’s dopiness, but rather of predatory collusion—if they can get away with it, that is.

Meralco and the Energy Regulatory Commission so far have not disclosed what generators sold their power to Meralco at P33/kWh.

If Aquino now realizes he can’t get good advise from his Energy Secretary Carlos Petilla, whose main professional record after all is as Leyte governor for nine years, he could call on one of his top ambassadors to help out to find ways to mitigate Filipinos’ suffering, his envoy to Japan Manuel Lopez, a director of Meralco. (I wonder if Lopez briefed Aquino that his company would be spoiling Filipinos’ Christmas during their dinner in Tokyo last week.)

A big part of the blame validly falls on Meralco. It claimed that the power deficiency that required it to buy from the WESM was due to the shutdowns of several suppliers as well as of the Malampaya gas facility which provides the cheap fuel for many power generators.

But most of these shutdowns, including that of Malampaya, had been planned and scheduled when the year started, and Meralco had been duly informed.

The big question: Why didn’t Meralco prepare for this?

Meralco could have anticipated the power deficiency by buying from the WESM months ago, for delivery in November, so it would enough power instead of buying at P33/kWh from WESM. Stupid of Meralco. And we’re supposed to pay for its stupidity?

In fact, the WESM was so much in the doldrums from January to August, because the biggest buyer, Meralco, had so much power that it purchased less than two percent of its requirements from the market in these months, depressing its prices.

Obviously, the WESM companies thought that they could recover their losses for most of the year because of the bearish market by charging an atrocious P33/kWh in November. And Meralco cooperated.

Since the outrageous increase in electricity prices this month is not because of controllable factors such as a spike in oil and coal prices—the fuel for the generators—but to market failure or most probably, to the players’ collusion, Aquino can and must stop this atrocious burden on consumers and industry.

What can Aquino do?
First, it could be that all he has to do is to have dinner with Meralco’s board of directors, and especially its new chairman Manuel V. Pangilinan, who also controls the mammoth PLDT-Smart conglomerate. Pangilinan’s Metro Pacific Investments Corp. since 2012 has become Meralco’s biggest controlling stockholder.

He could tell them over after-dinner cognac: “By the way guys, you goofed big-time. Fix it fast, as your stupid price increase would be the last straw on my falling trust ratings.”

Maybe Ambassador Lopez could give Aquino tips on how to conduct the meeting, based on his experience during President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s dinners with Meralco’s Lopez owners under her term, which for some reason mitigated its rate hikes at that period. (But which, I suspect, cost her starting 2005 in some kind of Empire Strikes Back plot.)

Why would Meralco care? Because electricity distribution (and of course communication) is one of the most heavily regulated industries, and here as anywhere in the world, government in so many ways can make life difficult for firms in a regulated industry.

And Aquino certainly would be justified to make Meralco’s life difficult: Why did they buy electricity from WESM at a stupid P33/kWh price? Why didn’t they prepare for the electricity shortfalls that purportedly made them go to the market?

Second, Aquino should meet with the three or four power firms which sold the electricity to Meralco at the outrageous P33/kwh price, and tell them, “please mitigate your greed, or else . . .”

To have some bargaining chips in his meeting, Aquino could bring with him a report from WESM how much each of these companies sold at the outrageous prices, and hint that reporters have been asking copies of the report. Maybe Aquino can bring with him in his meeting BIR Commissioner Kim Henares, in the way Mafia godfathers bring their top killers to important meetings.

I don’t think these firms would finance a coup d’etat if Aquino demands a win-win solution: That Meralco instead pays them the average cost of power it bought from WESM from January to October this year, plus a “bonus” for them of 10 percent.

That comes to just P12.5/kWh.

The firms make money since it cost them just P5/kWh to generate the P12.5/kWh they’d be selling Meralco. Everybody happy, except probably one or two shareholders of these firms who planned to buy Ferraris from the killing they would have done with a P33/kWh price.

Third, Aquino should ask Meralco to fire its President Oscar Reyes as well other officials involved in the purchase of power at P33 from WESM. Do we have to explain that a company president who buys something from the market at six times its average price is incompetent? And Reyes isn’t even full time as Meralco president. He is chairman of such companies as Meralco Energy, MIESCOR, MRL Gold Philippines, and even CIS Bayad Center.

Moreover, Meralco is not just any company selling widgets or doughnuts: It is a monopoly in Metro Manila, it is imbued with public interest, its decisions affect the lives of five million Filipinos. You can’t just have it run by somebody just looking at the firm’s profits.

Fourth, Aquino must demand that the Energy Regulatory Commission institute measures to prevent such colossal failure of WESM’s mechanisms.

Isn’t it obvious to explain that a rise in power prices at the WESM from P5.6/kWh in September to P13.7/kWh in October and then P33.2’kwh in November—in a period when there’s no war that erupted, no global financial crisis, no oil price spike—means a market failure, that it’s been manipulated?

There are easy, but unfair proposals made by our stupid politicians: that moneys such as the Malampaya account or the P5-billion refund Meralco still has to distribute to consumers be used to mitigate the rate increase.

But why would we use these funds to fill up the purses of these greedy power firms that sold Meralco such outrageously overpriced electricity?

But given the track record of this government, my bet is that Aquino would do absolutely nothing. Ironically, those who are most vociferous in opposing the Meralco rate hike that they asked the Supreme Court to stop it have given him a convenient excuse for his “noynoying” on this issue that affects millions of Filipinos: “Bahala na ang Korte Suprema.”

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

Aquino can stop the P8-B electricity rip-off

That is, if President Aquino is willing to do so, and willing to risk the ire of his corporate backers in the industry. That is, if he has the competence to do so.

The P8-billion rip-off? The super-profits a group of power generators will get as a result of Meralco’s irresponsible purchase from them in November of grossly overpriced electricity, the cost of which is passed on to five million Metro Manila consumers in their December bills.

Based on Meralco’s data, it bought in November from these firms — through the Wholesale Electricity Spot Market (WESM), 9.5 percent of the electricity it distributed, or 286 gigawatts, at an astonishing cost of P9.5 billion, or P33.2 per kilowatt-hour (kwh).

That’s 184 percent the average monthly price electricity sold at the WESM of P11.7 billion from January to September this year, or 326 percent the average P7.8 billion price since that market started in 2007.

These firms though spent only P1.5 billion (P5.3/kwh) to P1.9 billion (at P6.4/kwH) at most to produce that power, which means super-profits for them of P7.7 billion to P8 billion.

But Meralco won’t be spending a centavo for that overprice. We will, as it is passed on to our electricity bill this month and the next, with the price shooting up by 30 percent.

Aquino with Ambassador to Japan Manuel Lopez, a director of Meralco. Inset: Meralco chairman Manuel V. Pangilinan, whose Metro Pacific Investments is the firm’s biggest, controlling stockholder

Aquino with Ambassador to Japan Manuel Lopez, a director of Meralco. Inset: Meralco chairman Manuel V. Pangilinan, whose Metro Pacific Investments is the firm’s biggest, controlling stockholder

There are allegations that the power firms which sold through the WESM at P33 are also owned by the majority owners of Meralco, which would make it not a case of the distributor’s dopiness, but rather of predatory collusion — if they can get away with it, that is.

Meralco and the Energy Regulatory Commission so far have not disclosed what generators sold their power to Meralco at P33/kwh.

If Aquino now realizes he can’t get good advise from his Energy Secretary Carlos Petilla, whose main professional record after all is as Leyte governor for nine years, he could call on one of his top ambassadors to help out to find ways to mitigate Filipinos’ suffering, his envoy to Japan Manuel Lopez, a director of Meralco. (I wonder if Lopez briefed Aquino that his company would be spoiling Filipinos’ Christmas during their dinner in Tokyo last week.)

A big part of the blame validly falls on Meralco. It claimed that the power deficiency that required it to buy from the WESM was due to the shutdowns of several suppliers as well as of the Malampaya gas facility which provides the cheap fuel for many power generators.

But most of these shutdowns, including that of Malampaya, had been planned and scheduled when the year started, and Meralco had been duly informed.

The big question: Why didn’t Meralco prepare for this?

Meralco could have anticipated the power deficiency by buying from the WESM months ago, for delivery in November, so it would enough power instead of buying at P33/kWh from WESM. Stupid of Meralco. And we’re supposed to pay for its stupidity?

In fact, the WESM was so much in the doldrums from January to August, because the biggest buyer, Meralco, had so much power that it purchased less than two percent of its requirements from the market in these months, depressing its prices.

Obviously, the WESM companies thought that they could recover their losses for most of the year because of the bearish market by charging an atrocious P33/kWh in November. And Meralco cooperated.

Since the outrageous increase in electricity prices this month is not because of controllable factors such as a spike in oil and coal prices—the fuel for the generators—but to market failure or most probably, to the players’ collusion, Aquino can and must stop this atrocious burden on consumers and industry.

What can Aquino do?
First, it could be that all he has to do is to have dinner with Meralco’s board of directors, and especially its new chairman Manuel V. Pangilinan, who also controls the mammoth PLDT-Smart conglomerate. Pangilinan’s Metro Pacific Investments Corp. since 2012 has become Meralco’s biggest controlling stockholder.

He could tell them over after-dinner cognac: “By the way guys, you goofed big-time. Fix it fast, as your stupid price increase would be the last straw on my falling trust ratings.”

Maybe Ambassador Lopez could give Aquino tips on how to conduct the meeting, based on his experience during President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s dinners with Meralco’s Lopez owners under her term, which for some reason mitigated its rate hikes at that period. (But which, I suspect, cost her starting 2005 in some kind of Empire Strikes Back plot.)

Why would Meralco care? Because electricity distribution (and of course communication) is one of the most heavily regulated industries, and here as anywhere in the world, government in so many ways can make life difficult for firms in a regulated industry.

And Aquino certainly would be justified to make Meralco’s life difficult: Why did they buy electricity from WESM at a stupid P33/kWh price? Why didn’t they prepare for the electricity shortfalls that purportedly made them go to the market?

Second, Aquino should meet with the three or four power firms which sold the electricity to Meralco at the outrageous P33/kwh price, and tell them, “please mitigate your greed, or else . . .”

To have some bargaining chips in his meeting, Aquino could bring with him a report from WESM how much each of these companies sold at the outrageous prices, and hint that reporters have been asking copies of the report. Maybe Aquino can bring with him in his meeting BIR Commissioner Kim Henares, in the way Mafia godfathers bring their top killers to important meetings.

I don’t think these firms would finance a coup d’etat if Aquino demands a win-win solution: That Meralco instead pays them the average cost of power it bought from WESM from January to October this year, plus a “bonus” for them of 10 percent.

That comes to just P12.5/kWh.

The firms make money since it cost them just P5/kWh to generate the P12.5/kWh they’d be selling Meralco. Everybody happy, except probably one or two shareholders of these firms who planned to buy Ferraris from the killing they would have done with a P33/kWh price.

Third, Aquino should ask Meralco to fire its President Oscar Reyes as well other officials involved in the purchase of power at P33 from WESM. Do we have to explain that a company president who buys something from the market at six times its average price is incompetent? And Reyes isn’t even full time as Meralco president. He is chairman of such companies as Meralco Energy, MIESCOR, MRL Gold Philippines, and even CIS Bayad Center.

Moreover, Meralco is not just any company selling widgets or doughnuts: It is a monopoly in Metro Manila, it is imbued with public interest, its decisions affect the lives of five million Filipinos. You can’t just have it run by somebody just looking at the firm’s profits.

Fourth, Aquino must demand that the Energy Regulatory Commission institute measures to prevent such colossal failure of WESM’s mechanisms.

Isn’t it obvious to explain that a rise in power prices at the WESM from P5.6/kWh in September to P13.7/kWh in October and then P33.2’kwh in November—in a period when there’s no war that erupted, no global financial crisis, no oil price spike—means a market failure, that it’s been manipulated?

There are easy, but unfair proposals made by our stupid politicians: that moneys such as the Malampaya account or the P5-billion refund Meralco still has to distribute to consumers be used to mitigate the rate increase.

But why would we use these funds to fill up the purses of these greedy power firms that sold Meralco such outrageously overpriced electricity?

But given the track record of this government, my bet is that Aquino would do absolutely nothing. Ironically, those who are most vociferous in opposing the Meralco rate hike that they asked the Supreme Court to stop it have given him a convenient excuse for his “noynoying” on this issue that affects millions of Filipinos: “Bahala na ang Korte Suprema.”

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

Be angry at Meralco’s rate hike

Very angry in fact—the steep electricity cost is sheer highway robbery of Meralco’s more than five million customers, most of them poor. Its audacity is shameless, executed during the Christmas season and while the nation’s attention had been nailed to super typhoon Yolanda’s horror.

Because of Meralco’s rate increase this month, a company or a small group of companies, which the firm isn’t disclosing, will generate P8 billion in windfall profits for just one month, December, and you’ll be paying for these.

graph

If your bill for the 400 kilowatt hour (kWh) you consumed in July was P4,501, your December bill would be about a thousand pesos more, at P5,671, the extra P1,000—your contribution to the dividends of the Philippine corporate elite.

What happened?
To simplify, Meralco bought in November about 10 percent of the electricity it distributed at three times its normal price, which higher cost it insouciantly passes to you in your December bill. Meralco claims it had to buy expensive power from the market because its regular suppliers couldn’t deliver the required volume, because many of them had to shut down.

The following are the facts.

Some 51 to 57 percent of your Meralco electric bill, depending on how much you consume, is the cost of the power the company buys from generators. The rest are such charges as distribution and transmission costs, Meralco’s profits margins, and the recovery of such expenses such as its P1.7-billion advertising budget.

The power Meralco distributes come from two sources.

First are its eight to ten regular suppliers which have supply contracts with Meralco. The second source, started in 2007 is the so-called “Wholesale Electricity Spot Market” theoretically a market which, in Luzon, consists about 50 companies that have power plants, a few distributors the biggest of which is Meralco, and about 300 electric cooperatives.

Meralco purportedly has to buy from the WESM when its suppliers are unable to provide it with the necessary power, either because they had to shutdown for maintenance and other reasons (as happened in November) or demand becomes too high, as happens in the summer season as more electricity for air-conditioning are used. Since 2007, Meralco buys an average of 5 to 10 percent monthly of its total power supply y from the WESM.

Like any market, from a fish to a stock market, the WESM is supposed to be a mechanism by which electricity is treated as a tradable commodity, and therefore its price is determined by its supply and demand.

However, as happened in October and then on a bigger scale in November, there was either a total failure of the market, or—the most logical reason—there has been a collusion between Meralco and its power suppliers.

From July 2007 to September this year, the average cost of power Meralco had bought from the WESM was P7.8 per kilowatt hour (KwH).

This, as in any market, represent some premium from the P4/kwH in Meralco’s Power Supply Agreements with six companies, and P5.5/kwh in its more expensive Purchase Power Agreements with three firms.
Despite the fact that there have been more participants in the WESM, the average price Meralco has bought from it has doubled from P5.2/kwH from July 2007 to June 2010 under President Arroyo’s watch, to P10.11 from July 2010 to September 2013, during President Aquino’s term.

And how much did Meralco bought from the WESM in November, which it will recover through your December bill?

A staggering P33.22/kWh, which is three times the average monthly price of P11.7 from January to September this year. It is the highest price ever sold at the WESM in its seven years of existence.

Meralco claimed it had to buy from the WESM because of shortfalls in the power volume its regular suppliers were contracted for, due to scheduled or unscheduled shutdowns for various reasons including the dearth of natural gas fuel from the Malampaya facility, which also closed for maintenance.

But there wasn’t such a huge shortfall in electricity supply in November to merit such an exorbitant price as the P33.22 price paid in the WESM.

Meralco’s regular suppliers in November provided 73 percent of its power needs. This was hardly different from the situation in October when its regular suppliers provided 75 percent of its electricity, and it bought 7.6 percent from the WESM at P13.7/kwh.

There was in fact a bigger shortfall in the power its regular suppliers could provide in December 2010. For that month, Meralco had to buy 12 percent of its electricity from WESM, but it paid only P7/kwH, less than fourth of the P33 it paid in November this year.

Transactions in the stock market are suspended when prices rise just 25 percent. Why didn’t the Energy Regulatory Commission step in and declare a market failure at the WESM? Was the national leadership alerted about this serious development that threatened the welfare of millions of metro Manila residents? Or didn’t it realize its impact? Or did it think, “Bahala na ang merkado.” (It’s all up to the market.)?

Why didn’t Meralco complain of an obvious market failure? Or would have its owners one way or another profit from the market failure?

I was told that only three companies through the WESM sold Meralco the 286.4 gigawatt hours of power, at an average of P33.22/kwH. How much would they have made?

The cost of power generated by these companies would be about P5.3/kwH, if we use the average price of power sold to Meralco in November by its regular power suppliers.

This means that the firms which sold Meralco power at P33.22 for P9.512 million generated their electricity at a cost of only P1.5 billion.

How much will they make when Meralco pays them, after we pay our electric bills? A staggering P8 billion, super-profits generated by 5 million mostly low to middle-income metro Manila residents, like you and me.

Three groups own Meralco: that of Manuel V. Pangilinan (PLDT-Smart), the Lopezes of ABS-CBN, and the San Miguel conglomerate. Firms owned by the Lopezes and San Miguel though are also Meralco’s regular power suppliers, with the former being the biggest supplier accounting for a fourth of its electricity and the latter, 20 percent. Other major suppliers are firms owned by the Aboitiz and DMConsunji conglomerates.

It is important to note though that these firms are also players in the WESM. A very important information the Electricity Regulatory Commission should disclose to the public: Which companies sold Meralco electricity at the exorbitant price of P33.22/kwH in November, which will be charged to us, the consumers?

The one fundamental reason for our high electricity rates is the cost of coal and oil, since we do not have the much cheaper nuclear power.

Under an incompetent government though which is impotent in intervening in a market that has failed, there has emerged an even more important factor: the greediness of the elite.

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

Electricity prices under Aquino the highest ever

If  containing electricity prices—which not only affects the country’s investment attractiveness but also the lower and middle classes’ well-being—were a gauge of stewardship, President Aquino’s administration is a failure.

There may or may not be a cartel in our electricity sector. If there is, it certainly has run wild under this administration.

Never has there been a generation cost of P9.11 per kilowatt-hour (kwh). This is what Meralco claims it paid for the power it purchased in November, because it had to buy a lot from the Wholesale Electricity Spot Market (WESM), which caused the shocking jump in consumers’ electricity bills for December.

That’s 60 percent higher than the P5.67/kwh generation charge in October. To mute public protest over the impact of a P9.11/kwh generation cost, the Energy Regulatory Commission ordered Meralco to instead recover P7.66 in December and the rest in January and February.

Meralco claims that it had to buy power from the WESM as its regular power providers couldn’t deliver the required electricity due to their maintenance shutdown. Because the Malampaya facility also shut down for maintenance, other firms also didn’t have the natural-gas fuel to run their generators to produce power for Meralco. (What Meralco doesn’t reveal though is whether the firms its major owners own supplied it with the expensive power through the WESM.)

An analogy would be if cable Internet service providers shut down, and you had to rely on the more expensive cell-phone-based 3G or LTE to connect with the Internet. And the analogy is perfect since both Globe and Smart have cable Internet as well as broadband services. If this ever happened, and you had to pay P1,000 a day to get online, wouldn’t you suspect a cartel conspiracy?

But I doubt very much though if Congress or Justice Secretary Lilia de Lima would really find cartelized collusion, as they have announced they would.

The generation cost accounts for an average of 51 to 57 percent of your bill, depending on how much kilowatt-hours you consume. The rest consist mainly of the charges for transmission (from the generator to Meralco) and distribution (Meralco to you), some VAT, and other strange charges. Five to seven percent of your bill is euphemistically called “system losses” which represents the cost of the electricity lost due to Meralco’s engineering boo-boos and to the poor who are unable to buy electricity and just pilfer it.

Check for yourself how much your hit will be in the following table, based on information on Meralco’s website. From my own bills though, the firm’s figures are usually are underestimated. Add 15 percent to the Meralco figures so you’d know how much to save to pay your electricity bill this month.

bills nov and dec

A spike in generation costs had occurred once before, in April 2010, and for exactly the same reasons. But the increase amounted to only P6.8/kwh, one third less than the current jump.

But that precisely reflects this administration’s impotency in containing electricity costs. Or rather, is it too helpful to the magnates who control the electricity industry?

While electricity supply in the country has increased from 62 terrawatt hours in 2007 to 73 TWh this year, Meralco’s monthly generation cost — which, on the average accounts for 52.3 percent of a consumer’s bill — averaged P4.64/kwh from July 2007 (the oldest data available at the firm’s website) to June 2010, or under President Gloria Arroyo’s watch.

final 4 for powerIn contrast, Meralco’s monthly generation cost during Aquino’s term so far averaged P5.49/kwh or 18 percent more. This cost is not only entirely passed on to consumers. Because it bloats the base on which such charges as transmission, distribution, and even taxes ware calculated, consumers’ final bills are increased much more.

The line chart below clearly shows that during Arroyo’s term, generation costs had, except for a few instances, hovered much lower than the comparable months during Aquino’s administration.

final3 power

What does this difference in generation costs mean for us? A lot of pesos, as is evident in the following table, which again since it is a Meralco table, an underestimation.

bills arroyo and aquino

It isn’t cheap even for us in the low-middle classes to have an inutile government.

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

Social media rising: Roxas video nears 1M views

Secretary Mar Roxas’ disputation with Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez a few days after Yolanda devastated his city has turned out to be a milestone, not only because it marks the total annihilation of the presidential ambitions of President Aquino’s purported political heir. The video of Roxas’ confrontation with Romualdez is the first time that social media has eclipsed the perspective of traditional, mainstream media.

Social media has surpassed traditional media as the main source of information—and therefore opinion—on this government’s early responses to catastrophe caused by the super typhoon.

Consider the facts. The video was first posted on YouTube December 9 by columnist Cito Beltran and Romualdez’ father-in-law Jose Ma. Gonzalez. The video had Roxas telling Romualdez, who then appeared stunned by the devastation of his city: “You have to understand you are a Romualdez and the President is an Aquino so we just want to legalize if not legalized well ok you are in charge we help you but that’s it, bahala kayo sa buhay n’yo.”

I would think that considering the horror caused by Yolanda—deaths now would likely reach 10,000 as the Tacloban police chief had estimated, and for which he was fired for his guess—and the mammoth work needed to rehabilitate Leyte and Samar, Roxas’ politicization of the rescue tasks and his cantankerous attitude towards the Tacloban city officials were certainly big news. This is especially so since Roxas’ less-than-supportive attitude could explain why national government’s response in the first week of the crisis was slow and inadequate that rotting corpses were uncollected for days.

roxas20131216

Viral in social media: Including other versions of the video, Roxas’ “bahala kayo sa buhay nyo” video viewed by a million Filipinos.

Since that day though up to this writing, all of the biggest newspapers and television networks downplayed the video and its implications, either totally ignoring it, giving Roxas (and yesterday President Aquino) more space or time to refute Romualdez, burying in their inside pages, or downplaying it as the minor news of the day.

However, in social media, shared through Facebook postings, e-mailed links to it, and viewed in YouTube the video was making history.

As of this writing, the video—in its different lengths – was viewed 915,211 times in just five days, obviously on its way to the one million mark, a milestone in Philippine social media. The second most viewed non-entertainment video? GMA News’ “24 Oras” segment entitled “Mayor Romualdez, inireklamo ang kulang naayuda ng pamahalaan sa Tacloban” with 135,786 views.

While it is not rare for music videos in the country to hit the one million mark in views, it certainly is exceptional for a non-entertainment video. Those that media often tag as ‘viral’ often have only at about 5,000 views.

In contrast, one video posted by a television network devoted to Roxas’ response to the Romualdez claims—that he just didn’t want government’s actions in Tacloban to be “misconstrued”—had only 4,798 views. Another had only 208 views.

What does it mean for the Roxas-Romualdez video to be viewed by one million Filipinos?

It could simply be a quirk, propelled by the fact that so many Filipinos wanted to find out whether Roxas—tipped by Aquino camp to be the next president—did or did not make those scandalous, threatening statements during a most difficult time for Tacloban. And those who found out told their friends to check out the video for themselves.

It could mean Filipinos have been deeply concerned about the tragedy caused by Yolanda, and they wanted to find out how local and national governments responded to the crisis.

I would think though that the Roxas-Romualdez video is the first demonstration in our country of the power of social media in breaking a regime’s control of traditional media, even motivating oppressed peoples to revolt, as has been the case in the so-called Arab spring, and more recently in Ukraine and even Thailand.

(To compare, and contrast, the Million People March August 26 was also an demonstration of social media, which organized it. However, the information and the political issue the mobilization was based on however was generated almost entirely by traditional media, initially and mainly by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, said to be the biggest and most influential newspaper in the country.)

Demystify yourself of romantic notions about the wisdom of the masses. The masses get their political views from two sources: (1) their superiors, either formally or culturally, i.e., a laborer would tend to believe what his boss says, or what somebody in the upper classes says; and (2) what media says, which actually also forms the views of the elites who then download these to the lower classes.

Aquino is fond of saying the masses are his ‘bosses’, since he knows that the media he has controlled tells these “bosses” to like him, what they should think and tell him.

It is an irony of modern society that a very tiny sector of the elite controls media that has such tremendous power. And in democratic societies, the super-elite who control media either want the political ruling elite as their friends for their business interests, or shares the rulers’ ideology and mentality. Traditional media portrays “reality” for the masses in the way the elite wants.

Social media however isn’t traditional media, and is called “social” since its content are not decided by a small media elite, but generated by the “users”, i.e., those with Facebook accounts or those who post videos at YouTube. Such content becomes important—get a lot of views—only as a result of the actions of users themselves, i.e., how many of them view it and share it to others. In an important sense, and not without its downside, “news” in social media is a democratic process, voted upon when it is shared or even just “liked”.

For instance, Gonzalez and Beltran who posted the Roxas video at FaceBook aren’t press magnates. But the video became viral, viewed by a million Filipinos, consequently forming Filipinos’ (obviously negative) views of Roxas and the Aquino administration.

Of course, Facebook users and YouTube viewers aren’t exactly the masses. But they obviously consist of the middle- to upper classes that want to think for themselves and not just believe whatever media says. They would also be downloading their views to the lower classes.

Check out the so-called “internet cafes” (there are even so-called “Piso-net” outfits in which one peso gives you 15 minutes internet access), note that internet penetration in the country is 35 percent (65 percent among the youth) and that there are 30 million Facebook accounts opened so far the Philippines.

Netizens now are mostly populated by the politically active sector of the lower-to-middle classes—the vanguards of revolutions in any political upheaval in modern times.

And the fact that the Roxas video has reached the one-million-viewer mark means this regime’s control of media has been cracked.

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

Arrogance of power: ‘Bahala kayo sa buhay n’yo!’

It turns out that Mayor Alfred Romualdez wasn’t telling everything when he said in a congressional hearing Monday that Secretary Mar Roxas, President Aquino’s point-man in Tacloban after the super typhoon hit, told him, “You are a Romualdez and the President is an Aquino.”

Romualdez didn’t report the more chilling statement Roxas made: “If we cannot legalize [the turnover of authority to the national government], you’ll be in charge, we’ll help you, and that’s it, pero bahala na kayo sa buhay niyo.”

That Pilipino sentence has a particular nuance, which can’t be captured by its literal translation, “You’re in charge of your lives.”

Rather, it means, at best, telling somebody, “I don’t care whatever happens to you from here on.” At worse, it’s a veiled threat from a superior or from somebody with authority. “You can go to hell for all I care,” or “I wouldn’t lift a finger to help you from here on,” would be more accurate translations.

Coming from Roxas’ mouth and made in a meeting with a stunned mayor of a devastated city and his aides, it was a clear threat that if Romualdez wouldn’t formally turn over authority over the city, he won’t get the help he needs from the national government that Roxas represented.

YouTube posting of Roxas lecturing Romualdez: With similar video posted by columnist Cito Beltran, that’s 500,000 views, a record for the Philippines. (Video capture of YouTube video).

YouTube posting of Roxas lecturing Romualdez: With similar video posted by columnist Cito Beltran, that’s 500,000 views, a record for the Philippines. (Video capture of YouTube video).

Rather than just apologizing and regretting that his words were misinterpreted by the mayor, Roxas instead came out belligerent and quarrelsome. Apparently thinking that Romualdez’ supporters took a video only of that particular part of that meeting, Roxas claimed that the mayor was lying and that the video was “spliced, and its intention malicious.”

He had threatened to “release to the public” what he claimed was the untampered video “at an appropriate time.” He was unaware though that as he spoke, thousands were already viewing the clearly unedited 40-minute video on YouTube, posted by columnist Cito Beltran and Romualdez’ father-in-law Jose Ma. Gonzales.

YouTube sensation

As of this writing, the two posts together had been viewed more than 500,000 times, a record of sorts for Philippine videos posted on YouTube that aren’t entertainment in nature. It’s probably the most viewed YouTube video of a political nature involving our country ever.

Worse, Roxas claimed that Romualdez was not in his right mind as he was traumatized by Yolanda’s devastation, saying—and laughing madly afterwards—in an interview in GMA’s 24 Oras news program: “Tanong ko sa kanya, nagpa-stress debriefing ka na ba? Kung nag pa stress-briefing siya, baka tumino, luminaw ang pag-iisip niya.” (“My question to him: Has he undergone stress debriefing? If he did, he’d probably be sane and his thinking made clear.”)

Roxas’ statements in his meeting in Tacloban with Romualdez, his response to the criticisms against him for that episode, even his body language and choice of words reflect this man’s arrogance of power. What’s obviously has been going in Roxas mind: “Who is this mayor to defy what I wanted to be done in Tacloban, and to complain about it? We are in power.”

But it is not just Roxas’; it’s the deep flaw of his boss President Aquino, an arrogance of power.

It is the same arrogance of power that explains why President Aquino ignored a Supreme Court order to let former President Gloria Arroyo seek medical help abroad; why he removed Chief Justice Renato Corona and spent billions of pesos to bribe Congress to do so; why he filed trumped up charges against Arroyo and jail her; why he junked appropriations laws and spent the budget in the way he wished and disguised such use by calling it as a “Disbursement Acceleration Plan”; why he spent some of this fund for Congress’ additional pork-barrel to ensure its support; why he has presumed that Congress will pass unconstitutional laws in order to set up a virtually independent Bangsamoro state.

It is the kind of arrogance of power that led dictatorships and hated administrations fall here and all over the world.

Dream goes to the sewers

Roxas’ arrogance of power at Tacloban, though, means “game-over” for his dream to be president in 2016. I just can’t see how he could ever erase in people’s mind that YouTube video of his arrogance in the midst of a the horror in Tacloban, nor his hyena-like laugh when he claimed Romualdez was not in his right mind.

It is also a game-changer for this administration, as its first choice to be president in 2016, Roxas,  now obviously won’t make it. And it is a very, very slippery slope.

His supporters, both in big business, politics, and media, would sense the political winds changing and then turn their eyes to look for a new patron. The clear possibility has emerged that the next president won’t be yellow, and won’t protect Aquino and his people— a horrific prospect for them as  they have made the lives of many so miserable, drawn blood,  as some even claim, in the past three years.

Aquino would be moving into a panic mode now to create a clone or support somebody who can be president—in less than three years. and with no more pork-barrel to use to bribe political leaders. But that would have to be somebody outside his yellow cult. But that would sow division within his ranks, and his lieutenants would quietly slither out of his yellow tent.

Super Typhoon Yolanda has moved Philippine politics’ tectonic plates.

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

‘You are a Romualdez, and the President is an Aquino’

That, according to Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez, was what Interior and Local Government secretary Mar Roxas told him two days after super typhoon devastated his city and he was asking the national government for troops to keep order and undertake rescue and relief operations.

Those were chilling words made in the midst of a crisis when thousands of bodies were all over the city and thousands of the living were needing rescue, food and water.

Romualdez the other day at the joint congressional meeting of the Oversight Committee on the 2010 National Disaster and Risk Reduction law said Roxas made that statement after he asked why the official was asking from him a formal, documented turnover of the city government’s authority right after Yolanda struck.

Roxas’s first response was that Romualdez’ narrative was “preposterous and full of lies.” But he also told media that his statement “was taken out of context”. “What I told him was that we have to go by the book,” Roxas claimed.

Yesterday though, Roxas back-pedaled. When asked by broadcaster Arnold Clavio if he did make that statement, he replied: “Is it not true he is a Romualdez? Is it not true the president is an Aquino? Secondly is it not true he said the local government cannot handle it on their own so he sought for our help?”

Malacañang photo of a meeting among Romualdez, Aquino and Roxas in Tacloban, three days after Yolanda. Is Roxas scowling?

Malacañang photo of a meeting among Romualdez, Aquino and Roxas in Tacloban, three days after Yolanda. Is Roxas scowling?

Roxas replies does make it certain that he really told Romualdez: “You have to be careful because you are a Romualdez, and the President is an Aquino.”

But what exactly could Roxas have meant by that? I can think of only two explanations.

One would be that Roxas was asking Romualdez to turn over complete control of the city, even to formally resign his post, since the national government agencies would be undertaking all the relief and rehabilitation efforts and there might be legal complications involving the authorities of local and national governments.

Roxas was merely saying that the turnover should be formalized and documented, as President Aquino could be charged of going over the head of or even removing a mayor just because his family had been an archenemy of Romualdez clan since it was a pillar of the Marcos dictatorship.

But Romualdez had debunked Roxas argument by pointing out that the President is anyway of the whole country, which includes Tacloban.

Kinder interpretation
A second interpretation would be kinder to Roxas.

With his knowledge of Aquino’s character and mentality, Roxas was actually telling Romualdez: “Be careful, since the the President is an Aquino, and all of them hate your Romualdez clan. He’d hesitate helping you and your city, unless you formally turn over all authority to him.”

But if Roxas were just being helpful to Romualdez, giving him a tip on how to get Aquino’s help, why would the mayor later on criticize the secretary over that statement, to be even so emotional that he shed tears in public about it, and in effect denounced Roxas for his politicking in the midst of the most horrific tragedy in our generation?

Choose either explanation though, revealed is a high government official in a crucial post whose mindset is filled with politics and politicking. And Roxas does have an image of somebody who’s mind is so dead-set in becoming president in 2016, a desire that has so much consumed him.

Senator Antonio Trillanes 4th, chair of the oversight committee couldn’t be more right when he remarked: “Recalling what Mayor Romualdez mentioned, if politics got in the way of disaster response, this is the worst thing we could ever do.”

I had thought this administration’s bungling in handling the Yolanda crisis is due to incompetence: What would you expect of an amateurish, “student-council” government? It turns out that it is not only because of ineptitude but stupid partisanship.

* * *

And while all this politicking going on, international and local media continue to report on the hellish life of Warays in the wake of Yolanda’s devastation, a month after the typhoon hit.

International television news Al Jazeera’s Jamela Alindogan reported from Tacloban just the other day: “If you look around there’s been some cosmetic development,” she said. “But if you start talking to survivors, and you get into their homes and their tents, you get the sense that recovery for them is far from over.”

“And as emergency help starts to dwindle, people have become even more desperate—facing uncertainty and even exploitation.”

Alindogan featured an interview with one “Mylene”, a 16-year old girl whose parents were killed in the typhoon and the eldest of a family of 11. She has turned to prostitution, paid $6 for her services, amidst the ruins of Tacloban. “I don’t have any other way to feed my small siblings,” she says in the interview.

* * *

What was deeply troubling for me was the reportage of a local TV network just the other night. The report started by panning a crude sign on a card board on a Tacloban street: “Please pick up. Dead body of a boy.” The sign had a red arrow pointing downwards to a body bag. “

The report interviewed a distressed woman who lived in a tent located near the boy’s corpse. “I hope somebody picks the body up. It’s been stinking for days, and flies are swarming over it, and flying by us.”

Somehow, the image of a small boy—his name unknown and who knows if his parents also drowned in the flood or if they were looking for him—whose rotting corpse people around were complaining about was a testament to the horrific tragedy caused by typhoon Yolanda, and the depravation resulting from an incompetent government.

How can Aquino and Roxas claim that it deployed enough policemen and soldiers in Tacloban when rotting corpses are still by the city’s streets and under its debris to this day?

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

Aquino used agrarian reform funds as pork barrel

More and more, President Aquino seems to deserve the Pork Barrel King moniker.

It wasn’t just money from the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF)—the official pork-barrel kitty—and later from the Disbursement Acceleration Plan (DAP) that President Aquino used to bribe senators for their support, especially for the impeachment of Chief Justice Renato Corona.

Aquino even converted as pork-barrel funds money from the Agrarian Reform Fund (ARF), set up way back in 1987 and sourced from the proceeds of the sale to private groups of government assets and the recovery of the so-called ill-gotten wealth of the Marcos couple and their cronies.

Booked in the government’s accounting system as “Fund 158,” the ARF money is administered by the Land Bank of the Philippines, and intended mainly for the comprehensive agrarian reform program. It is money basically for peasants.

Sources from the budget department and the Commission on Audit claimed that Aquino could have used about P700 million of the ARF as pork-barrel funds in 2011 and 2012, a big chunk of which ended up in lawmakers’ pockets through “Napoles-type” of scams.

Letter from 2011 Chairman of Senate Finance Committee F. M. Drilon to Sen. Gregorio Honasan transmtting a copy of a P100 million SARO under DAR.

Letter from 2011 Chairman of Senate Finance Committee F. M. Drilon to Sen. Gregorio Honasan transmtting a copy of a P100 million SARO under DAR.

They were referring to the alleged operations of the now infamous Janet Lim-Napoles to siphon pork-barrel funds to fake NGOs, by which lawmakers got part of the money as kickbacks.

Use of ARF money illegal
The use by Aquino of these huge ARF sums however is illegal not only because of one reason the Supreme Court recently gave in declaring all pork barrel funds unconstitutional, which is that lawmakers cannot be involved in the expenditure of the government budget.

More clearly, Aquino’s the use of ARF funds was because these had been released without resolutions by the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council’s Executive Committee, as required by law. The budget department cannot just on its own take money from the ARF; the transaction has to be approved by that committee.

The agrarian reform secretary chairs this committee, whose other members are the Executive Secretary, the secretaries of the departments of agriculture, environment and natural resources, finance, public works and highways as well as the chairman of the Land Bank of the Philippines.

In a full-blown investigation, each of these officials would have to choose whether to lie for Aquino or tell the truth that they didn’t approve or sign any resolution for such use of the funds.

The sources claimed that the P220 million that Agrarian Reform Undersecretary Anthony Parungao recently claimed had been endorsed by Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Gregorio Honasan and released to fund nonexistent “agrarian reform projects” by dubious nongovernment agencies was just a part of the total ARF funds that Aquino used as pork-barrel money.

“It was clearly Budget Secretary Florencio Abad’s idea, as he was familiar with these funds when he was agrarian reform secretary under Cory [President Corazon],” a source said. He probably thought the use of some of these ARF funds, as pork barrel would escape scrutiny.

A COA audit, contained in its Audit Observation Memorandum dated March 25, 2013, concluded that about P170 million of the P220 million was disbursed to fake NGOs, seven of which had been identified as fronts of Napoles by his employee Benhur Luy.

These were supposed to be spent for projects undertaken by “agrarian reform communities” mainly (and strangely) for vermi-composting (the use of certain worms to compost waste without using chemicals) and the distribution of fertilizers and chemicals to farmers.

Ghost projects
A field investigation by the COA, however, found no such projects implemented or being implemented. The mayors who were supposed to be partners in the projects were totally unaware of them.

The sources so far provided actual documents however solely in the case of such projects “endorsed” by Sen. Gregorio Honasan.

Obviously in response to Honasan’s request, Sen. Franklin Drilon, then the chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Finance who allegedly was Aquino’s liaison man in that body to distribute pork-barrel funds of any type, sent an official letter to Honasan, dated February 15, 2011 which read: (see page 1)

Attached to Drilon’s letter was a photocopy of Special Allotment Release Order No. E-11-00282 darted February 8, 2011 for the amount of P100 million. The SARO was signed by Budget Undersecretary Mario L. Relampagos, with the note. “By Authority of the Secretary.” The SARO indicated the fund code: 158, which means it was drawn from the Agrarian Reform Fund, and not from the PDAF, which is a separate item in the appropriations laws.

The COA and the agrarian reform undersecretary for legal affairs followed the paper trail on the use of the P100 million, and undertook actual investigations, and found that the bulk of the money was released to fake NGOs for nonexistent projects.

“What is strange though is why only documents involving Jinggoy and Honasan’s pork barrel from ARF funds are being released by the agrarian reform department,” a budget department source said. Several other senators, including those in Aquino’s camp had availed of this ARF ‘pork-barrel,’ the source added.

Aquino and the Senate apparently had concluded an agreement in late 2010, that for the body to be really supportive, especially of the President’s unprecedented plot to take out Chief Justice Corona that year, the regular PDAF of P200 million yearly for each senator wasn’t enough. After all the senators thought they had a right to it as they make the budget law, and without that PDAF, there wouldn’t be a budget law.

Being a former agrarian reform secretary, Abad knew that the ARF could be tapped as pork barrel funds. But Abad—and probably Relampagos—later thought that the easier way would be to get money from various departments, by simply declaring some of their allocations as “savings.”

As a smokescreen, they used such dubious “savings” for other projects they preferred, and called such impounding and utilization of funds allocated by the budget laws as “Disbursement Acceleration Plan.”

Instead, that scheme, when the Supreme Court rules it as unconstitutional, would probably accelerate the unraveling of Aquino’s regime.

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

We needed then, and need now a Mandela

Read the editorials and obituaries of major newspapers around the globe, and you’ll be astounded by the outpouring of praise upon South African leader Nelson Mandela, who passed away December 5.

It is certainly well deserved. It is not primarily because of his courage and steadfastness in fighting apartheid, unbowed by nearly three decades of imprisonment, that humanity considers him an exemplar of being a human being and a leader of men.

 The “Madiba” jive: Reconciliation rather than retribution

The “Madiba” jive: Reconciliation rather than retribution

It is something else, as a Boston Globe editorial succinctly put it: “Mandela was a pillar of grace, magnanimity and restraint in victory.“ President Obama put it this way: “The apartheid regime had long smeared Mandela as a dangerous radical, but the new president’s time in office was marked by reconciliation rather than revenge.”

He was the co-founder and commander of the African National Congress’ armed wing “Spear of the Nation”, which the US labeled then as a Marxist terrorist group. Yet after his release from prison and already in his 70s, Mandela struggled for a peaceful revolution to end apartheid. Nearly his entire productive years stolen by the regime, and not even allowed to attend the wake of his mother and eldest son, Mandela preached not a “righteous path” but a path of forgiveness.

I was reminded how great a man Mandela, fondly and respectfully called in his country by his clan name “Madiba,” was in the 2009 movie “Invictus.”

The leading character, the rugby team captain (played by Matt Damon) after visiting Robben Island where the leader spent 18 of 27 years in jail, remarked in amazement how he “could spend thirty years in a tiny cell, and come out ready to forgive the people who put him there.” (I was imprisoned during martial law for only two years, and it was only after two decades that I forgave and understood the motives of those who put me there, which included then Defense secretary Juan Ponce Enrile and Philippine Constabulary chief Fidel Ramos.)

There were no priests in cassocks linking arms nor nuns praying the rosary stopping tanks in the street demonstrations that led to South Africa’s revolution; Mandela didn’t seek Divine protection in some convent; and I don’t think anyone credited the Africans’ liberation to Mother Mary’s intervention.

But I would think the revolution against apartheid as well as Mandela’s term proved to be the most Christian political endeavor ever, using that term to mean Jesus Christ’s message of peace and compassion to our fellow men.

Forgiveness better than revenge

Not known to be really a religious person (there is even no consensus if he was a Methodist or with the Jehovah’s Witnesses) Mandela’s message that he pounded and again and again on the ANC and to the South African Communist Party that was a vanguard of the revolution was that forgiveness is better than revenge, that reconciliation is better than retribution.

“If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal, “he said in one of his famous speeches. “Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.”

How things would have been different if we had a Mandela in 1986 and 2010!

After the EDSA Revolution, neither the very religious Corazon Aquino nor anybody talked about forgiveness nor reconciliation for Marcos, his family and cronies, the military, and those who executed martial law. “Forgive the sinner, not the sin” was both Cory’s and even Cardinal Sin’s mantra. They didn’t say though if you could embrace the sinner as still a brother.

The irony of course is that the elites of martial law, even those who tortured and executed student activists, simply weathered the storm of hate, fought it out in the courts, kept their Swiss and Japanese bank accounts intact or invested these outside the country, mainly in Hong Kong, or migrated abroad to enjoy their loot. They have come back, firmly entrenched in the highest echelons of business, press, politics, and even the academe.

Totally opposite Mandela’s mind-set is that of President Benigno Aquino III, who lives the fantasy that he led a revolution against a wicked predecessor, even as the reality is that the wave of condolences after his mother’s death was stronger than the popularity of convicted plunderer Joseph Estrada who had maintained his image as a man of the masses.

In the starkest contrast to Mandela’ ethos of reconciliation and unity, Aquino’s has been one of hate and divisiveness. Even the yellow ribbon pinned on his chest—instead of the Philippine Republic’s official insignia—is a symbol of his administration’s exclusiveness, proclaiming that it is only his yellow cult can fight corruption and save the country.

Nearly comedic was even Aquino’s attempt to mimic South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” But his version’s title was a dead give-away: “Truth Commission,” without the word “Reconciliation.” It would have been a kangaroo court to persecute his predecessor Gloria Arroyo and her allies, but the Supreme Court saw through the ruse, and shot it down as unconstitutional.

Rather than offering a hand of reconciliation to his predecessor, he pursued trumped-up charges against Arroyo, and has simply ordered his minions to keep on delaying the proceedings to keep her detained, so that her health has deteriorated and she is now in a life-threatening condition. Is there anything like Mandela’s “Goodness” in that?

A divisive President

Aquino’s very first move as President was deeply divisive, and even made in what should have been a solemn, unifying ritual for a nation.

He refused, to be inducted to office by the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice, a practice that has been the tradition since our Republic was borne. In front of the nation, he instead chose his favorite justice in the Tribunal to swear him to office. And then, he chose as one of his most important projects—which sapped his political capital—the removal of Renato Corona from office, dividing the nation and Congress, and over a technicality: the accuracy of the Chief Justice’s statement of assets and liabilities.

Rather than an unprecedented move to stamp out corruption involving pork barrel funds, Aquino ordered the budget department to release documents to the investigating Commission on Audit—but only those of the opposition legislators.

Rather than inspiring the nation during the calamity created by super typhoon Yolanda, Aquino instead blamed the local governments in the disaster areas, and even threatened to file charges of negligence against them.

As vividly depicted in “Invictus,” Mandela went out of his way to motivate, and to get his people to support, South Africa’s all-white “Springboks” rugby team, to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup, to symbolize his nation’s march towards multi-racial harmony and national progress.

Here, a Filipino who overcame poverty to reach the heights of global excellence—Manny Pacquiao—is humiliated by Aquino’s firing-range buddy Kim Henares after his victorious championship fight against a Mexican-American. Henares branded him as a tax-cheat and ordered his bank accounts frozen. I don’t think Aquino wouldn’t have done that if he had experienced the body pains and even wounds of an athlete, as Mandela, who was a recreational boxer and rugby player, did in his youth.

If you can think of any instance or episode in which Aquino made a gesture of reconciliation with the opposition, or with his predecessor and her allies, I would gladly devote my entire column to such an account.

The editorial of Britain’s The Guardian described Mandela: “Few could deny a certain sweetness in his personality, and a largeness of mind that had room for all.”

A few days after Yolanda struck, a businessman was pouring his heart out to Aquino that armed looters were roaming Tacloban. An irritated Aquino blurted out: “But you’re still alive, aren’t you?”

So much in contrast to Mandela, and very sadly for us, our leader has a certain bitterness in his personality, and a narrowness of mind that has little room for empathy for others.

Perhaps it has been because we have had two regimes that have been deeply divisive of our people that we can’t feel one as a nation, that we are in the rut we’re in.

Perhaps our nation’s “Rambotitos” should transform themselves into “Mandelitos.”

Filed under: Manila Times Columns

Stop the ‘not so serious’ media murders

For somebody like pinch-hitting spokesman Herminio Coloma, who is not just a columnist, but even a martial-law era activist, to say that media killings in the country is “not so serious” is shocking.

More so when he seems to be really convinced that it’s a trifle problem since he looked down on several in the list of 24 media people killed under President Aquino’s term as “a driver of a network, employees of fly-by-night newspapers”, and to ridicule a somebody who probably was just trying to have ends meet, “a block-timer selling skin whiteners.”

But Coloma probably is a very accurate spokesman for Aquino, since after all, this President hasn’t done much to stop the “not-so-serious” killing of journalists, other than to make promises.

Consider the photo of the banner headline of a major newspaper accompanying this column. Merlina “Len” Sumera was the host of a DZME public affairs radio program in Metro Manila, a 44-year-old mother of three, killed near her home in Malabon City by a single gunshot wound in the head, an indication of the work of a professional assassin.

When was that banner headline published, with its article reporting that Aquino “assured the public that Sumera’s killing would soon be solved,” and that “he had received reports that the National Capital Region Police had identified and were in pursuit of the killers?”

March 26, 2011, two years and eight months ago.

“Soon” for Aquino has meant never.

When? Aquino promise nearly three years ago.

When? Aquino promise nearly three years ago.

Two years and eight months now no one has been arrested for a murder that drew even international condemnation. Apparently assuming that Aquino was too stupid to realize that the police were making fun of him, the Philippine National Police claimed that communists perpetrated the murder.

Communists did it
But not by just by any communist group but by “Partisanong Gitnang Luzon”—a group not mentioned at all in any national security assessment, or even in any Communist Party propaganda that it’s likely to be fictitious, but a convenient fiction for the police as they’d just say that they can’t be arrested as they’re in the hills with the NPAs.

The PNP claimed that the killers were “Carlos Alejandro, and four identified only by their aliases as “Al Pilay, Rosa, Rene and Pangit.” The police quite obviously were too uninterested over the case that they didn’t even concoct more convincing names.

Even the late Department of Interior and Local Government secretary, Jesse Robredo got involved, with a newspaper reporting: “Robredo personally met with the Malabon police, local government officials and representatives of urban poor association hours after the assassination of Sumera.” Robredo echoed Aquino’s boast, that police will leave “no stone unturned in investigating the murder of the radio news anchor.”

Like all of the 24 media men killed under Aquino’s term, Sumera’s murderers haven’t been captured, nor even really identified.

The case is dead in the water, and even its case file is gathering dust in some Department of Justice filing cabinet, and nobody’s really investigating it nor a group assigned to capture the suspects—if those identified are real persons, that is.

I had asked in August our reporter Ferdinand Villamente to check out what happened to the Sumera case. His report, read and weep:

“Investigation and efforts to locate and capture the killers of Sumera are stalled, going nowhere. It is not even clear who or what agency is following up the case.

“Two years ago, the Philippine National Police formed the so-called ‘Task Force Usig’ to investigate not only the killing of Sumera but of other media workers. Its head Police Superintendent (Lt. Col.) Henry Libay, however, told The Manila Times that the case is now being followed up by the Malabon City’s police.

“Task Force Usig’ said that the case is being handled by Malabon Police’s Police Officer III (sergeant) Gerry de la Torre, Police Officer III Rommel Habig and Police Officer 2 (Corporal) Patrick Alvarado.

“Dela Torre however told The Manila Times that ‘he lost track of the case’ since he had been taking up courses for his promotion. He said that Habig has been the officer in charge of the case.

“Habig, however, said all the documents has been turned over to the Department of Justice as the case depository on the request made by a group of journalists.

“The ‘prosecutor general’ had approved of their request that’s why all pertinent documents to the case has been turned over to the department of justice,’ Habig said.”

And without the “documents,” how could he be investigating the case?

What a liar
“We’ll get Sumera’s killers soon,” Aquino boasted nearly three years ago. What a liar. Or maybe, what sheer incompetence.

Sumera’s killing was one of the high-profile cases among the 24 journalists killed during Aquino’s term. It turns out that the case was turned over first to a police sergeant and then a corporal. But then the sergeant excuses himself, saying he’s been busy with his studies to get a promotion, while the corporal says he turned over the case to the DOJ.

If this administration can’t solve the Sumera case, even to the point of humiliating Aquino who practically announced “case closed” and that it would be only a matter of time for the killers to be arrested, I don’t think any of the other 22 journalists killed will be given justice.

Worse, it emboldens more media murders, as it has in fact occurred with the killing last week of Mindanao broadcast journalist Joash Dignos last week.

What is sad so that our press organizations, for all their press releases expressing concern over media killing, aren’t really pressuring this government to go after the murderers. They aren’t even monitoring the status of the investigations of the killings.

For example, The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility responded after a week to my query on Sumera’s case, with a terse reply: “The case is still pending before the Department of Justice,” which as I explained above isn’t really the case: It’s stalled at that department. Worse, its one-page “case profile” merely quoted press reports that parroted the police line that it was a communist hit squad which murdered Sumera.

Press releases every time another journalist is killed, wont’ stop the media murders. It doesn’t require much thinking for our media organizations to undertake three steps:

§ Demand a monthly detailed report on the police’s or that Task Force Usig’s (if it really exists) investigation of each case of media killings.

§ Set up its own task force to meet with ranking PNP or DOJ officials to follow up each case of a media man killed.

§ Raise a Media Defense Fund, to finance private investigators to probe the killings, and to pay the legal fees of attorneys who would follow up cases when suspects are charged in the courts.

We’re supposed to protect our own, aren’t we?

Filed under: Manila Times Columns