Explanation required, Mr. President

My position regarding what has become Republic Act No. 10175, the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, has not changed since I first went over the Senate version (Senate Bill No. 2796) several months ago: I maintain that it is a deeply flawed law that will not be able to properly address the problems it was ostensibly designed for, including, but not limited to, libel, cyber-bullying, and cyber-prostitution. Of course, back in February, I was content merely to air my anxiety, because I was fairly optimistic that the ill-conceived bill would not prosper, such optimism—or maybe I should say, with the benefit of hindsight, naïveté—being largely rooted in my reluctance to entertain the notion that the denizens of officialdom would act, to use a time-honored phrase, like a bunch of drooling incompetents.

It seems opportune to raise yet again the important question of whether our leaders understand what goes on in cyberspace, even as they attempt to engage the wired middle and upper classes—certainly not the general public, in view of extant data on the level of Internet penetration, not to mention access to electricity, in the country—by establishing and using all sorts of online properties, such as web sites, blogs, and social media accounts.

The massive outcry against the anti-cybercrime law, which, as of this writing, includes four separate petitions filed with the Supreme Court by various groups, has found the apparatchiks of this administration scrambling to defend the decision of President Benigno S. Aquino III to sign it into law. For instance, at a press briefing yesterday, September 27, Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda, urging critics to wait for the pertinent Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR), said that “freedom of expression is not absolute”, and that the law “[attaches] responsibilities in cyberspace”—pronouncements that are not without merit and would be difficult to disagree with, but tend to come across as incongruous at the very least, considering that Lacierda, along with other Palace functionaries, has been known to happily heckle political opponents—transport strike organizers and participants, say, or former Chief Justice Renato Corona—using his Twitter account, and could more convincingly serve as an exemplar of irresponsible online behavior than the opposite, especially because, by virtue of his position, he is supposed to speak with the voice of the Chief Executive.

Similarly irresponsible, as well as disingenuous, are the arguments advanced by Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office (PCDSPO) Undersecretary Manuel L. Quezon III, who, in response to blogger Jon Limjap’s tweet that the law, presumably on account of its provisions on libel, could be used “to silence political critics online“, replied that Limjap’s “sweeping” statement “ignores the [C]onstitution and its guarantees“, adding that the Act contained nothing that “any columnist hasn’t had to live with since time immemorial“. I would have thought that the following patently obvious things need not be said: first, the Constitution will not prevent—and in fact allows—the litigious from threatening to file or actually filing lawsuits, as Quezon himself knows from experience, whatever the courts eventually decide; second, the majority of people online are not columnists and have had no journalistic training, though pretenders do proliferate; and third, just because a particular state of affairs has persisted “since time immemorial” is not a reason to maintain said state.

None of the foregoing is to advocate that a kind of exceptionalism be observed with reference to cyberspace and the various activities that go on it it, as The Philippine Star columnist Federico J. Pascual seems to believe, rather strangely, of those against the anti-cybercrime law. I do think that there is much that deserves to be regulated online, although that requires a separate discussion. The process of law-making, however, ought to be undertaken with intelligence, sensitivity, and no small amount of caution. Given the disturbing implications of the Act in its current form, a severe shortage of precisely the aforementioned qualities may well be afflicting Congress and Malacañang, and now time, energy, and taxpayer money must be spent, if not squandered, in the fight against a law that, as Cocoy Dayao has pointed out, could have been crafted “far, far better“, and would therefore have been a more efficient use of national resources.

It is interesting to note that, according to a recent report, Aquino did not exercise his veto power over the Act because the office of Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, Jr. prepared a legal memorandum recommending the law for signing. Perhaps Ochoa or Aquino might be prevailed upon to release the contents of this memorandum to the public,  in order that the rationale behind the approval of the Act by a President who has repeatedly asserted his commitment to freedom and transparency might be understood by the people it will affect—the so-called bosses in whose interests he claims to work, and to whom he now owes a clear explanation.

Crunching the DSWD numbers

Much has already been made, both in cyberspace and in meatspace, of the entry entitled, “Aanhin pa ang damo kung patay na ang kabayo? (A special report from a volunteer)” by blogger Ella. If the controversial entry, which questions the efficiency of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) in conducting relief operations, is more strident and more provocative than absolutely necessary, especially toward the end, when Ella speculates that the goods thus far unreleased might magically surface during campaign season or in flea markets, the fact that many people assumed the worst—and behaved at their worst, should the comments that I have read on the issue be any indication—is a clear demonstration of at least two things: first, the despair and outrage at the devastation caused by typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng, which have not found an outlet for sufficient expression and catharsis; and second, the low regard in which the government in general, and the present dispensation in particular, is held.

Given such, working honestly and competently in government could well be a Sisyphean task—when everyone is determined to be cynical and hostile, what point is there in trying to do, or even intend, any good? Still, DSWD Secretary Esperanza Cabral seems willing to take on the challenge. As she stated in an October 25 letter to Philippine Daily Inquirer editor-in-chief Leticia J. Magsanoc,  “Our Department is not perfect, but I can assure you that the overwhelming majority of us are competent at what we do and that we do our jobs with integrity.

A recent development bears this assertion out: the Presidential Anti-Graft Commission (PAGC) ranked the DSWD first among 109 agencies in terms of compliance to the requirements of the Integrity Development Action Plan (IDAP), the government’s anti-corruption strategy—a rank it has held since 2007. The IDAP consists of 22 different measures to address corruption, and covers four areas: prevention, education, deterrence, and strategic partnership. (Below is a presentation on the IDAP for reference.)

One of the more notable signs of the commitment of the DSWD to transparency and accountability is to allow the public access to its records of donations received and released via its official web site, a list of which follows below:

That DSWD made these records available apparently without prompting or pressure is a move worth recognizing. Cabral, in the same letter to Magsanoc quoted above, made a good point when she said, “We could have very well kept the information to ourselves and you will likely be none the wiser.”

That said, there is certainly plenty of room for improvement. On the question of rapid action, for instance, which was the main bone of contention for Ella, Manolo Quezon remarked in his column that:

The blunt answer is, the DSWD could be moving faster, and it took the public outcry caused by the blog for the government to start sounding a call for more volunteers, which sidesteps the question of whether it’s a wise or even necessary policy to rely on volunteers for a line agency to fulfill its functions. The DSWD has done a lot, as it is; so the public interest lies in figuring out how it could do better—which it can’t do, without the public participating by means of criticism and helping in problem-solving.

He also stated in his supplement to the column that, while the records as such appear to indicate that the DSWD is indeed being a responsible steward of the donations, they are rife with inconsistencies. It is therefore difficult to make any firm conclusions, though it is not from a lack of trying: one need merely take a look at the number of ways that he and a few online volunteers were able to present and re-present the data.

What follow below are my own attempts at crunching the DSWD numbers. Obviously, my findings are in no way definitive or exhaustive.

Considering that the DSWD records are Google Documents, which are meant to be easily changed and updated, I uploaded the records on which I based my study to my Scribd account: the tally of in-kind donations received here, and the tally of released donations here. The inclusive dates are September 27 to October 27.

Findings on Donations Received

(Note: The yellow columns in the spreadsheet are ones that I added to the record. Everything else either appeared as is or was rearranged for clarity.)

  • With regard to donations received, the DSWD was tracking five basic variables: (a) date received; (b) donor; (c) goods/services donated; (d) quantity of units donated; and (e) monetized unit value.  Upon multiplying the latter two, a sixth variable, (f) the total monetized value of the donation, would result. Producing (f) is easy enough; with a spreadsheet program, all one has to do is copy the formula to the relevant cells. As can be seen toward the bottom of the first page, which reflects all the donations received on September 27, 2009, there are significant differences between the figures in the Reported Monetized Value (RMV) column, which appeared as is on the DSWD record, and the figures in the Actual Monetized Value (AMV) column, which were generated simply by multiplying quantity of units donated with the monetized value per unit. The DSWD received goods from the UNICEF which had monetized unit values, but were nevertheless marked “For monetization”, leading to a discrepancy of PhP396,550.00.
  • Another discrepancy lies with the Reported Total of the Day (RTD), which also appeared as is on the DSWD record. The RTD for September 27 is PhP2,369,440.00, but the figures that contributed to this specific total cannot be found. In truth, this RTD conflicts both with the Total RMV and the Total AMV. Inexplicably, there are three different totals for the same set of donations received.
  • The record for the next day, September 28, shows no difference between the Total RMV and the Total AMV, but the RTD is smaller than either by PhP804,900.00. It is only on the third day, September 29, that the RTD, the Total RMV, and the Total AMV are finally the same figure. From September 30 onwards, however, the RTD is no longer recorded.
  • On October 5, the World Food Program donated 50 kilograms of National Food Authority (NFA) rice, but the value of the donation was recorded as Php0.00.
  • On October 13, General Santos (care of Aboitiz) donated 26 boxes of noodles. Each box contained 72 packages of noodles. The unit value per package is recorded as PhP540.00. Then, the RMV for the entire donation is recorded as PhP5,400.00. Evidently, both values are suspect, but if the unit value is accepted for what it is, then the AMV of the entire donation is PhP1,010,880.00.
  • Added on October 31: Note that the immediately succeeding entry, which is also a donation of 900 packages of noodles from General Santos, has no reported value. Is this second set of noodles different from the first?
  • At the very end of the record, the Reported Grand Total of donations is PhP59,426,418.75. This figure does not seem to be based on any of the totals that could be derived from the available data.

Here is a summary that shows the discrepancies between and among the various totals:

As I note in the summary, the actual figures—when these are finally determined—should be much larger than they are, as so many donations still remain unmonetized:

I have included the UNICEF donations that arrived on September 27 because of the “For monetization” remarks.

Findings on Donations Released

  • Unlike the previous record, there seem to be no discrepancies as far as computing the value of the donations is concerned.
  • One strange thing that I did observe was that, on October 7 and 8, assorted donations were released without being monetized.
  • As the donations are also tracked by area, it might be useful to compare this record of releases to situation maps, such as the Typhoon Ondoy Situation Map, in order to determine how strategic the DSWD is in its relief operations.

As the first column of the above document indicates, I tried to come up with a broad classification system for the recipients of the donations so as to be able to get a rough picture of how the distribution went. (I assumed that “VIBES Inc.” is a charity of some kind, but I could not find any information about it.) This is the resulting chart:

A significant majority (80.89%) of the released donations went from the NROC to the various field offices of the DSWD, which should be reassuring. I do not know, however, why PhP774,528.00 worth of noodles was released to an unnamed entity—is this a clerical error?

Because Cabral vowed a “politico-proof” the distribution of relief goods, a statement that was later questioned by the Inquirer in its editorial last Sunday, it might be interesting to see the list of government officials to whom goods were released:

Here is the corresponding chart:

At the risk of sounding utterly ignorant, a question I find pertinent is: Who is Atty. Maramba, and in what capacity or under whose authority is he or she receiving donations?

Taxes on book imports lifted!

From The Philippine Star: “President Arroyo ordered yesterday the Department of Finance to scrap the taxes imposed on imported books and reading material.

*

Manuel L. Quezon III: “New Media has (again) proven its political and social clout with the breaking of the book blockade.”

What are you doing on Sunday?

Excerpted from “The perils of loyal oppositon” by Manuel L. Quezon III [my emphasis]:

Writers are up in arms; educators are up in arms; librarians are upset, citizens in Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao are outraged. Still, public opinion, so far, has mostly been ventilated on line, which is both a blessing and a bane. A blessing because people have found ways to organize themselves, primarily to express common feelings of indignation; but also a bane in that it’s proving difficult to figure out what to do. Or what can be done.

A good way to achieve a consensus in this regard is to join RockEd’s Sunday activity at the Baywalk along Roxas Boulevard, from 3 p.m. to sundown. Booklovers are asked to bring 3-5 books they’d like to swap or give away, as an act of solidarity with fellow booklovers. Perhaps this will also provide a venue for discussing, and committing to, future courses of action, such as asking for a rally permit on the steps of the DOF.

Let us set our books (duty-)free!

“Taxing Our Future”

Click here to read the full official statement by the UNESCO National Commission of the Philippines opposing the imposition of duties on imported books. As of this time, portions of the statement have appeared in BusinessWorld Online and GMANews.TV.

[via Manuel L. Quezon III]

Updates on the book blockade II

In addition to the timeline and readings assembled by Manuel L. Quezon III, the entries and compilations of links by the UP Hobby Gamers’ Circle and the Jester in Exile are also worth checking out.

Fr. Joaquin G. Bernas, S.J., Dean Emeritus of the Ateneo de Manila Law School, seeks to make sense of the book blockade in the Philippine Daily Inquirer today. He characterizes as “very strange” the manner in which the DOF and the Bureau of Customs (BOC) understand Republic Act No. 8047–the very act that Department of Finance (DOF) undersecretary Estela V. Sales invoked to justify the imposition of duties upon imported books. Bernas says that RA 8047 actually “complements the Florence Agreement”, and therefore, it is in this spirit of complementarity that the tax provisions of both RA 8047 and the Florence Agreement should be read.

In view of Sales’s dismissal of novels as “not educational“, Robin Hemley, whose dispatch from Manila sparked the present furor over the taxation of books, has offered to teach Sales and her philistine ilk free of charge:

Next time I’m in Manila, we can start our lessons. The Course will be titled “The Literature of Corruption,” and it will teach novels that deal explicitly or implicitly with an entrenched culture of corruption. Maybe we’ll start with Rizal’s classic NOLI ME TANGERE. I’d also like to include a Graham Greene novel, perhaps THE HEART OF THE MATTER and definitely Aravinda Adiga’s THE WHITE TIGER. That’s just a start. I’m open to suggestions. I might even be able to get her some University of Iowa credit. I think it would be a great course and I’d even extend the offer to Rene Agulan, the Customs official who held up the first shipment of books in January as well as any other Customs officials who might like to learn what exactly is educational about novels.

Should Sales et al. balk at this generous offer–I myself would jump at the chance, but then I don’t claim to be able to “quantify the unquantifiable“, as Jessica Zafra puts it–oxar2001law has proposed an “easy, not too embarrassing way out” for the DOF and the BOC.

Those who want to e-mail Sales may do so via esales@dof.gov.ph. Hemley opines that, “[I]t’s probably best not to ask her questions that can be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Hemley also suggests that bookstores should join the protest against the book blockade. My personal suggestion at this point would be to enlist the help of our National Artists for Literature, who of all people certainly appreciate the value of books. What would be the best way to reach them?

Seven Days of Action Against the Book Tax

From Manuel L. Quezon III (Originally posted in his Twitter account):

Day 1: Text/fax/postcard executive officials, supporting appeal of Rep. Locsin to the President to rescind book tax, and supporting, too, the NBDB resolution opposing the tax. You can try to leave an online message for the President of the Philippines.

Or:

EDUARDO R. ERMITA

Executive Secretary

Tel.# 735-5334
Fax# 7361076
Email address: erermita@op.gov.ph

ALBERTO G. ROMULO
Secretary of Foreign Affairs
Tel.# 551-0357 / 834-4016
Fax # 551-0287 / 8321597
Website: http://www.dfa.gov.ph
Email: osec@dfa.gov.ph

MARGARITO B. TEVES
Secretary of Finance
Tel.# 523-4255 / 523-6051
Fax # 521-9495
Website: http://www.dof.gov.ph

RAUL M. GONZALES
Secretary of Justice

Email: ssad@doj.gov.ph
Website: www.doj.gov.ph

You can try to send an SMS to:

Atty. Erlinda de Leon, Special Assistant to the President of the Philippines

09189624563

Joaquin Lagonera, Senior Deputy Executive Secretary

09176130434

Day 2: Write a letter to the editor of a daily newspaper expressing your concern about the book tax. Demand coverage of the issue.

Day 3: Phone/fax/text a TV network about your concern about the book tax.

Day 4: E-mail or leave a message for UNESCO condemning the book tax (as proposed by Norman Sison to Robin Hemley). [I sent my own letter earlier today.]

Day 5: Two For One Day: Recruit a Filipino friend to the Cause, and inform a foreign friend about what’s going on so they’ll raise the issue with their government. Sign the online petition too. [According to Mia Dumdum, who started the petition, once 1,000 signatures have been collected, she will forward it along with a letter to Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago.]

Day 6: Rule of Law Day: Sign on to a lawsuit if the President won’t listen to the appeal to rescind the book tax.

Day 7: Participate in Rock Ed’s Book Giveaway Activity, Baywalk, 3-6 pm May 24.