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The Rundown: Cyber libel, task force internal issues, GCQ extension, duplicate beneficiaries

As the Philippines’ COVID-19 tally went well beyond the 25,000 mark, the National Task Force (NTF) Against COVID-19 was met with the issue of the alleged removal of its Special Adviser, shortly after the General Community Quarantine (GCQ) in Metro Manila and various other parts of the country was extended for 15 more days. These came after the week opened with Rappler CEO and Duterte administration critic Maria Ressa being sentenced for cyber libel.

Local, int’l figures hit Ressa cyber libel conviction

Various individuals and sectors from within the Philippines denounced the decision by a Manila Regional Trial Court to convict Ressa and former Rappler researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos Jr. of cyber libel last June 15.

Opposition lawmakers Rep. Edcel Lagman and Rep. Carlos Zarate both expressed their disappointments on the conviction, with the latter warning that it was “very dangerous”.

Members of the private sector likewise aired their concerns that the decision “would threaten our other rights and freedoms” through a unity statement made by groups including the Makati Business Club and the Filipina CEO Circle.

Abroad, the issue caught the attention of former United States (US) Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and the European Union External Action Services.

The verdict was for an article published in 2012, which cited an intelligence report claiming that businessman William Keng had committed various crimes, including smuggling and murder. While the Cybercrime Prevention Act—which Ressa and Santos were said to have violated—took effect in 2013, Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa ruled that a spelling correction made to the article in 2014 meant that it was republished and could thus be covered by the said law.

COVID-19 task force adviser ‘removed’ for criticizing DOH

The Special Adviser to the NTF, Dr. Tony Leachon, announced last June 17 that he had vacated his post on the pandemic response body, just days after he publicly criticized the Department of Health’s (DOH) reporting of COVID-19 cases in the country.

Shortly after, the health reform advocate added that he was actually removed from his position and claimed that the decision was made upon the request of DOH Secretary Francisco Duque III and Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque.

Roque has denied his and Duque’s involvement. He, however, admitted that members of the task force were not pleased with Leachon’s comments on DOH’s data management and that President Rodrigo Duterte himself took issue with them. “Nanggaling naman po kay Presidente na, Bakit nagsasalita nang ganito ‘tong si Leachon?’…Mismong Presidente po noted that you (Leachon) should not be doing what you are doing,” he said in a press briefing.

(The President himself asked, ‘Why is Leachon saying these things?’…The President himself noted that you should not be doing what you are doing.)

Interior Secretary Eduardo Año has since expressed regret over Leachon’s removal from his advising position, saying that the doctor was a “critical thinker” and that he will nonetheless continue to seek the former consultant’s input from time to time.

DSWD discovers SAP beneficiary duplicates

With the second tranche of the Social Amelioration Program (SAP) underway, difficulties began to mount again for the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) after 22,000 duplicate recipients of cash aid were found.

DSWD Undersecretary Rene Glen Pajes assured the public, however, “Kung anong halaga ang na-doble sa kanila ay mababawi natin.” He explained in a Laging Handa PH virtual briefing last June 20 that if the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program recipient duplicates can be identified, it would be easy for the DSWD to recover the cash aid. The beneficiaries who received double would simply no longer be given their benefits allocated for the following month.

(Whatever amount was given in double will be recovered.)

The revelation also pushed the agency to revisit and dig deeper into the financial reports submitted by Local Government Units during the first tranche in April where P100-billion in SAP aid was distributed. 

The House committee on good government and public accountability and the committee on public accounts will conduct further investigations on the validation of beneficiaries and liquidation reports on June 22.

Duterte extends GCQ in Metro Manila

Duterte ordered the extension of GCQ in Metro Manila along with several other areas until June 30 due to the continued rise of reported COVID-19 cases. 

The decision was announced last Tuesday, June 16, a day after the original GCQ period was supposed to expire. 

Cebu City, however, was placed back under Enhanced Community Quarantine. Roque declared that this decision was caused by “the increasing number of new cases and widespread community transmission in [the] majority of barangay[s] in the city.” 

For the rest of the country, more lenient guidelines are imposed under the Modified General Community Quarantine until June 30.

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