By Rommel F. Lopez

A partylist congressman leading the House of Representatives’ investigation into the government’s pandemic response spending was accused of “bullying” a reporter after the lawmaker kicked the latter out of a Viber group for House journalists.

Rappler reporter Rambo Talabong was removed on Monday, Sept. 27, from the Viber group of reporters covering the House of Representatives by DIWA party-list Rep. Michael Aglipay, House committee on good government and public accountability chairman.

Talabong posted a tweet about his removal from the Viber group.

“This is bullying,” was Rappler’s official response.

“May nagkasakit po ba o namatay?”.  was Aglipay’s question during the House hearing on Monday, September 27, 2021 that Talabong used in his article. The lawmaker was referring to the revelation of a Pharmally employee that the expiration dates of the face shields for medical frontliners were tampered with by the company before Pharmally supplied them to the government.  Upon questioning of senators, Pharmally Regulatory Affairs head Krizel Grace Mago admitted that the expiration dates were tampered upon orders of her boss, Mohit Dargani.

Rappler suspects that Aglipay might have “realized his blunder later, but instead of acknowledging it, he blamed Rappler reporter Rambo Talabong for publishing his quote.”

CNN Philippines also used the same quote from Aglipay.

“He named and shamed Rambo in a committee hearing then removed him from the Viber channel for journalists covering the House committee on good governance,” Rappler said.

Viber groups are used by government officials and agencies to regularly send official statements, invites, and Zoom links to reporters.  The Viber group where Talabong used to be part of is used by journalists covering the House committee on good governance and public accountability and its ongoing probe on the government’s pandemic spending.

In a statement, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) Metro Manila chapter said it “stands firm that no journalist should be singled out and be barred from covering government offices and personalities.”

“More importantly, we reiterate our call to defend press freedom and stop the attacks against journalists covering the hearings that uncover the anomalies in the government’s pandemic spending. As the media heeds its calling, it is vital to let us do our jobs and clamor for accountability and transparency,” it added.

Aglipay denies violating press freedom saying he removed Talabong for being “unfair” and “omitting most vital information” in reporting the House hearings.

Aglipay was referring to a quote from Health Sec. Francisco Duque III that face shields had a shelf life of 36 months.  However, during the same Senate hearing, Pharmally’s own warehouse staff admitted that when Pharmally tampered with the expiration dates, it was past its 36-month shelf life.

“Ito po ay personal kong Viber group, hindi Viber group ng government and I can include and exclude anybody as guaranteed also by the Constitution,” Aglipay, who is the representative of DIWA which “aims to protect workers’ rights and promote workers’ welfare for a just and humane society” said.

He also said Talabong was out on a “personal vendetta” against him because he declined the reporter’s request for interview last Thursday.

Talabong’s coverage of the House committee hearing noted how congressmen allied with President Rodrigo Duterte spend more time defending the government’s malicious deals with the Chinese firm and even attacking the Philippine Red Cross which is also chaired by Senate Blue Ribbon Committee chair Richard Gordon seemingly taking a cue from Duterte who has also spent much of his “Talk to the People” defending the deals and using ad hominems against Gordon.

Aglipay once took a shot of the Senate describing the upper chamber’s investigation as a publicity stunt.

“Tulad ng sabi nila, ito po ay nagiging in aid of election, not in aid of legislation,” he said during the September 20 House panel hearing.

Aglipay claimed at least four senators “savor every minute they can get for free TV coverage and publicity” because they hope to become president or vice president in 2022.

While congressmen said they found nothing anomalous in the deals, senators, however discovered that Pharmally, formed only in September 2020 with P625,000 in capital and no clear office address, bagged a whopping P12 billion in supply contracts. The company is being linked to former presidential adviser Michael Yang and Duterte.

Among the numerous bombshell discoveries at the Senate hearing was that Pharmally received an email on March 25, 2020 from the Department of Budget and Management’s Procurement Service (PS-DBM) requesting a proposal for 500,000 pieces of surgical face mask.  On the same day, it delivered the face masks even without an official purchase order from PS-DBM.

The Senate’s next hearing on the government’s pandemic spending is slated on September 30.