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Starting the year right and wrong

I think the new year started right with the significant reduction in injuries and fatalities from firecrackers. President Duterte should be praised unconditionally for that, given the huge public health and environmental benefits arising from this display of political will. I will not dilute this compliment by citing where I differ with the administration as my readers know that anyway. I am neither DDS or dilawan. As I did with Presidents Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Benigno Aquino III, I compliment and criticize when necessary.

Another good news from government is the launch last month of the “Biyaya ng Pagbabago” program, designed to drum up support for the Duterte administration’s agenda of improving the lives of poor Filipinos. The program is headed by The Office of the Cabinet Secretary, under Secretary Jun Evasco in partnership with 12 agencies under the Office of the President. Its successful implementation this year will ensure inclusive development. Biyaya ng Pagbabago has become even more critical as its success can blunt the potential negative impacts of TRAIN, the tax reform law that has just taken effect.

I will also compliment the President for two recent appointments, that of Miss Universe 1973 title holder Margie Moran, who was appointed as member of the board of trustees of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, and former police Director Benjamin Magalong as member of the board of directors of the Philippine National Oil Co. Ms. Moran and General Magalong have good reputations. They will do well in their jobs.

TRAIN brings both good and bad news to our people. The good news is that most wage earners will no longer have withheld taxes starting their first pay day of January. The bad news is the impact of the tax reform enacted on prices of goods and services. If the worst scenarios materialize, the poor could get hit badly and the middle class would have their gains from the reform negated. The Department of Finance, the National Economic and Development Authority, and the Department of Trade and Industry assure the public that the impact on prices and the inflation rate will be minimal. I hope they are right but if not, mitigation measures to help the poor should be put in place right away.

One good news is the increase in excise taxes for mining and fossil fuels, especially coal. The social and environmental benefits from this policy reform have been proven to be cost-effective and immensely positive everywhere in the world. From the numbers I have seen, the impact on electricity prices should be negligible.

In the justice front, bad news came in the release of former Palawan governor Joel Reyes from detention following a Court of Appeals decision that ruled there was no probable cause to maintain a prosecution against him in the murder of environmentalist Gerry Ortega. My heart goes out to the Ortega family, two of whom are close to me personally, for this once again cruel twist in their fight for justice. What worsened matters for them was the initial report that all five Justices of the CA panel ruled in favor of Reyes. The report was later corrected as two of the five, Associate Justices Maria Filomena Singh and Marie Christine Azcarraga-Jacob, dissented from the majority opinion.

I will write about this decision in greater detail later this month, in the anniversary week of the Ortega murder. Suffice it to say that in my view, as a constitutional law expert that interprets the law on the rights of accused liberally, the decision is definitely wrong and in an appropriate proceeding should be reversed by the Supreme Court. Ironically, the Supreme Court has already ruled that Reyes should be tried and that it is the Regional Trial Court that will his determine his guilt or not. This is also the gist of the dissent of the Justices Singh and Jacob.

Harry Roque, currently the presidential spokesman and a former private prosecutor in the Ortega case, has also pointed out that the CA ruling, penned by Associate Justice Normandie Pizarro (reported to be retiring next month) overruled an earlier Supreme Court decision that there was probable cause to file case against Reyes.

According to Roque, “There was already a decision by the lower court saying that the evidence was strong against former governor Joel Reyes.” “This is a very sad development for freedom of the press in this country given that the murder of Gerry Ortega is a classic case of extralegal killing.”

Solicitor General Jose Calida agrees, pointing out that the decision stinks and he will file a motion for reconsideration.

In the meantime, the Ombudsman has filed a motion with the Sandiganbayan to cancel the bail of Reyes for the plunder case filed against him where he has already been convicted. The decision in that case is on appeal.

This CA decision is a big letdown for justice. Unfortunately, it follows two other bad decisions by the appellate court: The ruling that disallowed Mary Jane Veloso, the OFW in death row, from testifying against her recruiters and the decision that rejected the claims of human rights victims against the estate of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Edre Olalia, president of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, correctly described these three rulings as a “triple-whammy letdown to those who still resort to our justice system for remedies.” Olalia also said that we must protest all three travesties of justice: “Justice for one must be justice for all. Silence or tolerance of injustice for others erodes credibility and integrity and even exposes hypocrisy.”

Finally, there is good news and bad news in the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s choice of Joven Laurio, the blogger behind Pinoy Ako Blog as its Filipino of the Year. When I posted in Facebook that I thought this was a good choice, there were reactions from those who thought the Inquirer editors chose wrongly. They expressed outrage at why the soldiers that fought in Marawi ranked second to Laurio.

I found that reaction strange as I didn’t see the Inquirer choice as a competition between Laurio and what she represents and the soldiers that fought in Marawi. Both are honored by the Inquirer. In any case, we just have to Iive with our differences. We really should not be fight over this as all of us have the right to our own opinion. The Inquirer editors have the right to choose who to honor and we should respect that.

That more editors voted for PAB is something I would expect from a Manila based paper and for journalists from national newspapers and the capital where fake news is a top of mind issue. For sure, Mindanao journalists would probably have voted differently, most likely for the soldiers or perhaps like me, they would have voted for Samira Gutoc, other Maranao leaders, and most of all the ordinary citizens of Marawi as they too are real heroes for what they had to confront and continue to endure. More importantly, their morale need to be boosted as they continue to struggle with what happened to their city and the challenge of reconstruction.

Closer to home, my second placer, among those considered by Inquirer, would be the lawyers of CenterLaw for their work in the frontlines of the fight for human rights. I am happy that they were recognized alongside the communities resisting EJKs that CenterLaw is assisting.

I am even happier that two of CenterLaw’s lawyers Joel Butuyan and Tin Antonio got married this week in what some of Joel’s UP Law classmates billed as the “wedding of the century”. This is definitely the best news, for a romantic like me, this New Year. Thanks Joel and Tin, congratulations, go accompany each other in the many battles ahead, but do find the time for life and love!

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Topics: Starting the year right and wrong

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