Government urged to prioritize bill on whistleblower safety

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By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

HUMAN rights lawyers urged President Rodrigo R. Duterte to certify as urgent a bill that seeks to protect whistleblowers after the Senate lost contact with a potential witness in an allegedly anomalous P8-billion contract for medical supplies.

“The current witness protection program is not sufficient,” former congressman Neri J. Colmenares said by telephone. He added that the country needs whistleblowers given the extent of government corruption.

The former lawmaker, who lawyered for Rodolfo Noel I. Lozada, Jr., a key witness in a $329-million broadband deal between the government of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and China’s ZTE Corp., said his client ended up facing legal charges.

The witness had tagged Ms. Arroyo’s husband Jose Miguel Arroyo and former election Commissioner Benjamin S. Abalos as masterminds of the allegedly anomalous contract, accusing them and several Cabinet officials of having received bribes from the Chinese company.

The country’s anti-graft court later dismissed graft cases against the ex-President, her husband and Mr. Abalos. “In the end, Gloria Arroyo and the rest of the gang got scot-free,” Mr. Colmenares said.

A Senate committee is investigating the government for buying overpriced medical goods from Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp., a unit of Taiwan-based Pharmally International, at the start of the pandemic last year.

Krizle Grace Mago, Pharmally’s head for regulatory affairs, told a Senate hearing last week the company had swindled the government by selling face shields that were either damaged or expired. She also said she was only following orders from company management.

On Sunday, Senator Richard J. Gordon, who heads the blue ribbon committee, said they could no longer contact Ms. Mago.

In a taped address aired on Monday night, Mr. Duterte questioned why the expiration date of the face shields delivered to the Health department should be an issue.

He said it was hard to believe that a piece of plastic would expire, adding that senators have run out of issues to hurl against Executive officials. “I am not bothered at all,” he said.

Party-list Rep. Carlos Isagani T. Zarate said Mr. Duterte should certify the bills protecting whistleblowers as urgent if he is sincere about his anti-corruption drive. “They should walk the talk,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

“Put your money where your mouth is, Mr. President,” Mr. Colmenares said. “You have so many allies in Congress, and I’m sure that even those who are not your allies will support the bill because it is a popular measure.”

Mr. Duterte in 2016 urged Congress to legislate a similar bill.

The House of Representatives bills seek to encourage more witnesses and to come forward and expose corruption.

Global corruption watchdog GraftMap earlier urged the Philippines to pass a whistleblower protection law. Whistleblowing can expose bribery of public officers, fraud in bid screening and conflict of interests in both public and private transactions, it said.

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