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Hontiveros, Elago say they could not ‘blindly trust’ government with emergency powers
March 24, 2020
MANILA, Philippines (Corrected 6:12 p.m.) — Lawmakers who voted against Malacañang’s bid to grant President Rodrigo Duterte emergency powers said they did so because they believe the president does not need them and that the powers could be abused.
With the ‘Bayanihan to Heal as One’ Act hurdling Congress, the Chief Executive is set to be handed sweeping powers to further initiatives against the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19).
These powers include the authority to “ensure” that all local government units are “acting in line with the rules and regulations issued by the National Government, the ability to adopt measures against hoarding and profiteering, and the power to procure goods, including medical equipment and supplies, among others.
A congressional oversight committee with four members each from the Senate and the House of Representatives will make sure that the powers are not abused, House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano (Taguig) said.
At the Monday special session held to tackle the bills in Congress, both Sen. Risa Hontiveros and Rep. Sarah Elago (Kabataan Party-list) were among ten lawmakers in both chambers who voted against the proposal.
‘Gov’t could have delivered earlier’
In separate statements issued on Tuesday, the two solons expressed concern over the administration’s track record in dealing with the new pathogen thus far.
“We cannot and should not blindly trust the use of these important funds to a government, which during this health crisis, has chosen to spend P14 billion on tourism projects, but has been unable to immediately and sufficiently deliver PPEs to our doctors, health workers, law enforcement agents and other frontliners,” Hontiveros said.
“The Executive Branch does not need special powers for it to act urgently and decisively in meeting the immediate needs of the people.”
She cited existing legislation, particularly the Reform Act (RA 9184), the Price Act (RA 7582) and the Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Health Concern Act (RA 11332), which she said the chief executive did not fully utilize against the worsening outbreak.
According to the senator, sans emergency powers, those laws already allow the government secure supplies for health workers and for indigents.
“Why is the president asking for special powers when he hasn’t even fulfilled his mandate and his existing powers?” she added.
Cayetano warns against ‘fake news’ on PPE shortage
After the measure was passed at the House, Speaker Cayetano said that fake news, or disinformation and misinformation, about the outbreak, could be harmful. He said that “fake news” about a shortage of personal protective equipment could lead to donations to an area that doesn’t need them and deprive areas that do.
Health Undersecretary Rosette Vergeire has acknowledged that there is a “global shortage” of PPEs earlier.
“Gusto man namin bumili, wala tayong mabilhan. Kaya tayo umaasa sa donasyon ngayon,” Vergeire said.
For her part, Elago pointed to the slashing of healthcare and social services in the budget bill, and the lack of a clear allocation of funds in the administration’s upcoming P275-billion COVID-19 response package.
“We can’t give out emergency powers without knowing for sure where the money and where these powers will be used by the government,” Elago wrote.
She also held issue with the bill’s provision on penalties, which reads:
Sec. 6. Penalties – In addition to acts or omissions penalized by existing laws, violations of the provisions of this Act shall be punishable with imprisonment of two (2) months or a fine of not less than Ten Thousand Pesos but not more than One Million Pesos, or both such imprisonment and fine at the discretion of the court: Provided, however, That if the offender is a corporation, association, partnership or any other juridical person, the penalty shall be imposed upon the president, directors, managers, managing partners, as the case may be, who participated in the commission of the offense or who shall have knowingly permitted or failed to prevent the commission of the same. If the offender is an alien, he shall, in addition to the penalties herein prescribed, be deported without further proceedings; Provided, further, that if the offender is a public official or employee, he shall, in addition to the penalties prescribed herein, suffer perpetual or temporary absolute disqualification from office, as the case may be
“Criminalization of any violation is prone to abuse and misuse,” the lawmaker said.
A network of lawyers also said on Monday that the bill outlaws an act that it doesn’t define, which could lead to its abuse.
Martial Law a ‘shining example’
Similar to groups that expressed their indignation towards the proposals on Monday, the Kabataan Party-list representative also disputed Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea’s assertion that the “shining example” of martial law in Mindanao from May 2017 to the end of 2019 is a guarantee that the powers will not be abused.
Medialdea said that there were objections and concerns raised over martial law but that it “came and went” peacefully.
“There are cases that have been filed and are still being investigated by the Commission on Human Rights on the declaration of [martial law] in Mindanao that haven’t been resolved yet, so such a claim has no basis,” she said in Filipino.
Elago also pointed out that the “climate of impunity” in the country had gotten worse in the past months, which led to uncertainty over handing the president stronger powers.
She cited alleged rights violations in the government campaign against illegal drugs, and attacks on dissenters, including journalists and activists.
“It is important to note that should emergency powers be invoked, the rights of the individual must still be held in the highest regard,” she said.
The Department on the Interior and Local Government, to which the Philippine National Police is attached, said Monday before Congress granted the powers that it “upholds human rights in all its programs including the fight against COVID-19… The virus is our enemy, not human rights.”
“Moving forward, we will closely watch the exercise of these additional powers by Malacañang to protect the public against abusive and ineffective policies. These expanded powers should translate to actual help to our vulnerable sectors, such as cash assistance to poor families and hazard pay to frontliners,” Hontiveros said.
“With these new powers at Malacañang’s command, they have no excuse to let our people down.”