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Ex-DA chief, farmers’ groups back replacing Sebastian

MANILA, Philippines — Two content creators who are reportedly retired military officers are under investigation for spreading disinformation on social media about a supposed widespread clamor among military and police offic ers for the ouster of President Marcos.

A security official privy to the ongoing probe who spoke on condition of anonymity said they have identified the two individuals engaged in spreading unverified information on video regarding an alleged plot by disenchanted men in uniform to have the President ousted.

The source declined to name the two retired officers being investigated.

“There are two of them, and they are saying almost the same thing,” the official said in Filipino.

Other content creators and individuals found having shared the videos of the two personal ities in their respective social media accounts are also being investigated and may be slapped with criminal complaints for trying to destabilize the government.

Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Gen. Benjamin Acorda Jr. earlier ordered the Anti-Cybercrime Group (ACG) to intensify its cyber-patrolling and identify the people behind the dissem ination of false and damaging information on social media against the administration.

The ACG, according to PNP public information officer Col. Jean Fajardo, has already made great progress in its probe.

“We now have initi al findings,” she said in Filipino on PTV’s “Bagong Pilipinas” program.

Fajardo clarified, however, that while the PNP has not monitored any destabilization plot against Marcos, it is still coordinating closely with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to thwart any attempt to destabilize the government.

“We are ready to address this kind of issues if we get to that point,” she said.

She warned social media users engaged in spreading sensitive but fake information that they could be held liable for unlawful use of means of publication and unlawful utterances under Article 154 of the Revised Penal Code and for violation of Republic Act 10175, or the Cybercrime Prevention law.

Fajardo also warned the public to be more discerning and not just accept as truth anything coming from social media.

For his part, AFP chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. also dismissed rumors of destabilization plot as he made it clear that the military is united under the “strong leadership” of Marcos, the commander-in-chief.

“The Armed Forces of the Philippines stands firm in its unwavering loyalty to the Constitution and its solemn commitment to fulfill its mandate,” he said in a statement “on the emerging challenges of 2024.”

“The men and women of the AFP remain steadfast in their role as the guardians of our nation’s sovereignty and defender of democratic principles,” Brawner pointed out.

Filipinos, he said, may rest assured that military officers and personnel continue to exemplify the highest standards of professionalism.

“With the strong leadership of our commander-in-chief, the AFP will move as one in defeating all threats to our peace and national security,” he said.

The AFP has been denying talks on a destabilization plot for weeks. It has also dismissed reports on alleged concerns raised by retired officials against the administration, saying they have the right to voice their opinions as private citizens. – Michael Punongbayan

MANILA, Philippines — The country’s inflation rate eased further in December to its lowest level in nearly two years, driven by the slower increase in utility costs and food prices, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA).

At a press conference yesterday, National Statistician Dennis Mapa said headline inflation or the rate of increase in the average prices of goods and services typically purchased by consumers slowed down further to 3.9 percent in December from 4.1 percent in November, and 8.1 percent in December 2022.

“This was the slowest since February of 2022 when the headline inflation was recorded at three percent,” he said.

The December inflation print, which decelerated for the third straight month, is within the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas’ 3.6 to 4.4 percent forecast for that month and marks the return to the central bank’s two to four percent target range.

Average inflation for 2023 was at six percent, higher than the 5.8 percent in 2022.

Mapa cited housing, water, electricity, gas and other fuels as the main driver of the downward trend in inflation as the commodity group registered a lower growth of 1.5 percent in December from 2.5 percent in the previous month.

Food and non-alcoholic beverages also had a slower inflation rate of 5.4 percent in December from 5.7 percent in November.

Inflation for food alone eased to 5.5 percent in December from the previous month’s 5.8 percent due to the faster declines in prices of vegetables and oils and fats, as well as slower increase in meat prices.

Rice inflation, however, rose further to 19.6 percent in December from November’s 15.8 percent.

Mapa said the December rice inflation is the highest since March 2009, when it hit 22.9 percent. He said the average prices of the three varieties of rice tracked by the PSA went up in December from the previous month.

As rice inflation registered a higher rate in December, National Economic and Development Authority Secretary Arsenio Balisacan underscored the importance of Executive Order 50, which extended the Most Favored Nation reduced tariff rates for key agricultural commodities like pork, corn and rice to ensure sufficient food supply and keep prices affordable.

“Amid an uptrend in international rice prices and the expected negative impact of the El Niño phenomenon, the Interagency Committee on Inflation and Market Outlook will closely monitor the situation and propose further temporary tariff adjustments if necessary. We will also push for trade facilitation measures to reduce other non-tariff barriers,” he said.

While the medium-term objective is to boost agricultural productivity, he said it is necessary to augment domestic supply to ease inflationary pressures, particularly to low-income households.

Wholesale prices of goods at the national level picked up at a slower pace in November from the previous month due largely to a decline in fuel prices, according to the PSA.

Data from the PSA yesterday showed the growth of the General Wholesale Price Index (GWPI) in the country eased to 4.2 percent in November last year from 4.4 percent in October 2023.

The GWPI growth in November last year is also lower than the 7.2 percent uptick in the same month of 2022.

“The annual rate of mineral fuels, lubricants and related materials decreased further to 6.7 percent in November 2023 from a 3.7 percent drop in October 2023, which primarily caused the downtrend in the annual rate of the GWPI in the country,” the PSA said.

In addition, four commodity groups posted slower increases in November from the previous month such as food at 6.8 percent from seven percent – chemicals including animal and vegetable oils and fats at 1.5 percent from 1.8 percent; machinery and transport equipment at 1.3 percent from 1.5 percent and miscellaneous manufactured articles at 3.3 percent from 3.6 percent.

In Luzon, the GWPI growth also slowed down to 4.1 percent in November 2023 from the 4.4 percent increase in October 2023, and 7.4 percent uptick in November 2022.

The Visayas also registered slower GWPI growth of 5.2 percent in November from 5.3 percent in October 2023, and 6.5 percent in November 2022.

As for Mindanao, the GWPI growth increased further to 3.6 percent in November 2023 from 3.3 percent in October 2023. Mindanao’s GWPI growth in November, however, is lower than the 4.8 percent increase in the same month in 2022.

The government will further boost food production and implement measures to keep the prices of basic commodities affordable, President Marcos assured the public on Friday as the 2023 inflation rate settled to its lowest level in December. “The government continues to work hard to improve the condition of our economy. For the new year, we will further strengthen programs for agriculture and focus on measures to keep the price of food and other basic commodities affordable,” the President said in Filipino in his official X account.

The decline in inflation to below the BSP target range of 2-4 percent by the end of 2023 was expected, House committee on ways and means chair Joey Salceda said yesterday.

In a statement, Salceda noted that this figure is aligned with his office’s estimates. The same goes for the annual average inflation of 6.0 percent.

“As I emphasized last month, the government must zero-in its efforts on rice, which has accelerated its inflation to 19.6 percent. All other commodity prices are under control,” he added.

The Albay representative cited, for instance, that the 12.2 percent inflation rate for fruits and nuts can be attributed to seasonal consumption during the Christmas season.

He underscored that the price increase on water supply, subject to regulation, is needed. On the other hand, all other commodity prices are either in single-digit or negative inflation. Corn inflation, in particular is negative, and this has resulted in a mere 0.2 percent inflation for meat.

Salceda underscored the country needs to focus on “import source diversification and increasing our domestic yield significantly” for rice as world prices are once again on the uptrend. He maintained there is a need to engage in solutions both on the domestic and diplomatic fronts.

The lawmaker cited that India has maintained its export controls, and there are expectations of a moderate El Niño this 2024, thus making rice prices more expensive globally. — Helen Flores, Sheila Crisostomo

MANILA, Philippines — National Security Adviser Eduardo Año lashed back at China yesterday over its most recent statements accusing the Philippines of engaging in provocative actions through its joint maritime activities with the United States in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

“The Chinese spokesman referred to these activities as ‘provocative military activities’ and deemed them as ‘irresponsible’,” Año said.

“We wish to clarify that the joint maritime activities between the Philippines and the United States were clearly conducted within our exclusive economic zone and are consistent with international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, so how can they be deemed provocative?” he asked.

Año stressed that the Philippines is merely exercising its sovereign right to engage in such activities within its territory and such exercises are aimed at enhancing the country’s maritime capabilities and interoperability with the US, a treaty partner, to ensure the security and stability of the region.

“The joint patrol emphasizes our ability to work seamlessly together to ensure the readiness of our joint forces to address evolving security challenges. Our joint patrols with the United States and potential future activities with other allied countries show our mutual commitment to a rules-based international order and promoting peace and stability of the region,” he said.

“It also demonstrates the significant improvement in the Philippines’ defense capabilities and the development of a world-class navy and armed forces capable of carrying out its mandate to defend the territorial integrity of the Philippines and our maritime rights in the West Philippine Sea,” he added.

Año clarified that the Philippines remains open to diplomatic discussions with China and reaffirms its commitment to fostering good relations with all nations.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the US Indo-Pacific Command held their 2nd maritime cooperative activity (MCA) in the West Philippine Sea on Jan. 3 and 4, where four Philippine Navy vessels and air assets teamed up with four US Navy vessels from the Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 1 which included an aircraft carrier, a cruiser, two destroyers and multiple combat aircraft.

As the MCA was being held, at least two Chinese ships shadowed or tailed Philippine and American vessels, with China later claiming that it was also conducting patrol operations in the area.

CSG-1 flagship Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson together with Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Princeton and Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Kidd and USS Sterett are now in Manila for port visits, demonstrating renewed strength of the Philippine-US alliance.

“Our two countries share democratic values, close cultural ties and our alliance has stood strong for over 72 years. As our oldest treaty ally in East Asia, the Philippines has shown their unwavering commitment in helping secure a free, open, peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific region,” Rear Adm. Carlos Sardiello, commander of CSG-1 said.

During their stay in Manila, the US Navy said sailors from the carrier strike group will participate in cultural exchanges, community relations events and Morale, Welfare and Recreation sponsored tours to enhance cultural understanding and cooperation between the two countries.

Before arriving in Manila, the US Navy said the CSG-1 conducted trilateral maritime exercises with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and Republic of Korea Navy, which provided an opportunity for the three maritime forces to sail together and conduct enhanced planning and advanced maritime communication operations.

CSG-1 departed San Diego for regularly scheduled deployment to the Western Pacific on Oct. 12, 2023 and since entering the US 7th Fleet area of operations, the group participated in the Multi-Large Deck Event and Annual Exercise 2023 in the Philippine Sea.

MANILA, Philippines — Former Department of Agriculture (DA) secretary Leonardo Montemayor and other farmers’ groups yesterday backed the move of Agriculture Secretary Francisco Tiu Laurel Jr. to implement a major revamp at the agency, after he replaced Undersecretary Leocardio Sebastian as undersecretary for rice industry development, the flagship program of the agency.

“It’s Secretary Laurel’s call as to who will constitute his team. Ultimately, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Regarding Usec. Leo (Sebastian), technically, I think he was not removed. He resigned or chose to retire. Although he was effectively sidelined as a mere member of the secretary’s technical advisory group,” Montemayor told The STAR.

Sebastian opted to retire effective Feb. 1, after he was replaced as undersecretary for rice industry development by officer-in-charge Roger Navarro.

Laurel issued Special Order No. 1 downgrading the position of Sebastian to a member of his technical advisory group.

For his part, Federation of Free Farmers (FFF) national manager Raul Montemayor said that it is the prerogative of Laurel to reorganize his agency.

“The DA needs a thorough assessment of its programs, new ideas and approaches and a fresh restart, because the billions being poured into agriculture in the past few years do not appear to be generating the desired effect, especially in the rice sector,” Montemayor said in a separate message to The STAR.

He noted that the DA continued its programs despite no significant outputs.

“We noticed that the DA has maintained old programs despite not proven effective. The DA tends to repeat the previous programs and ask for additional funding,” Montemayor added.

He said the DA lacks analysis on the effectiveness of current projects.

“The Department of Budget and Management keeps on funding the projects without actually determining if the program was actually a success. It prioritizes the release of funding to agencies who utilize their budget. What kind of budgeting is that?” Montemayor asked.

Farmers’ group Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura chairman Rosendo So maintained that the national rice program of the DA was slow under the leadership of Sebastian.

“Under the leadership of Sebastian, the P5,000 cash assistance for farmers in 2023… only started to be released in 2024,” So said.

He added that Laurel should not include the DA regional offices in the major shakeup.

“It is better to maintain the status quo in the regions. The delay in the implementation of the rice program was in Manila. The regions were effectively implementing the programs,” So said in a separate interview with The STAR.

On the other hand, he questioned the appointment of Navarro.

“Usec. Navarro was formerly with the Philippine Maize Federation Inc. I am not too confident that he can handle (rice industry development) as his previous experience was with the corn industry. The corn industry did not prosper when he handled PhilMaize,” So noted.

Meanwhile, Montemayor said yesterday that the 90-day rice stocks as claimed by the DA will only be good until the end of March 2024, adding that the 500,000 metric tons of the imported staple from India will last for only 12 to 14 days.

“The DA has been saying that the rice stocks last Dec. 31 will be enough for 90 days, that means that by the end of March, we will no longer have stocks of rice and if no rice imports arrive, we will have a problem. We will experience tightness in the supply anew,” he said in a radio interview.

Montemayor was reacting to the statement of Agriculture Assistant Secretary and spokesman Arnel de Mesa that with the total imports of 3.5 million metric tons and more than 20 million metric tons of local harvest, the country’s inventory will be enough for 80 to 90 days.

“They announced that 500,000 tons (of imported rice) will arrive, but that is too small compared to our daily consumption. It is only good for 12 to 14 days consumption,” he added.

Montemayor said the retail price of the staple food has increased in the last three weeks.

“There was a slight increase as traders anticipate the tightness in supply starting February or March,” he said.

Montemayor said that rice stocks are now in the hands of the traders, as the harvest already ended in November 2023.

“They (traders) are dictating the price and aside from this, the retailers also increase their price for additional revenues,” he noted.

According to Montemayor, lower class well-milled rice ranged between P52 and P55 per kilo and P60 per kilo for high quality.

He also discounted the possibility that the retail price of rice will return to P41 per kilo.

“One factor is the high price in international trade. Our deficit for one year is almost three million compared to our production and our total consumption. We import 20 percent (of our total rice requirement). If imported rice is high, the tendency is for the local rice to increase. Until we improve our local production, we don’t expect the retail price of rice to normalize and go down below P50 (per kilo),” Montemayor added.

He said palay production is also being threatened by the El Niño phenomenon.

Montemayor said millers are also involved in speculation as they limit the release of rice in the market.

“They are involved in speculation, speculative behavior as millers see the continued increase in the prices because of possible tightness in the supply in March,” he noted.

At the same time, Montemayor urged the public to stop the wastage of rice. “We should not only look at the supply side but also the demand. We are encouraging the public not to waste rice,” he said.

He warned that the shortage in the supply of rice can be felt starting significantly in the third quarter.

“We anticipate that we will have problem starting July, August, September as starting March, our stocks are almost depleted, but the harvest will come in, and then in May, June, when rains will not come in, farmers will not be able to plant. So, from May, June, all the way to September, we don’t have harvest. The next harvest after March will be October, November. If we cannot have a good harvest in May and April, we will have bigger problems,” Montemayor said.

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