Rio resignation accepted: ‘I may have stepped on some toes’
By Miguel R. Camus
Philippine Daily Inquirer
2020-05-23 05:00:45

A week before Malacañang announced that President Rodrigo Duterte had accepted his resignation, Eliseo Rio Jr., undersecretary of the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT), was being tapped to lead a program to help improve and speed up the administration’s COVID-19 response.

On Friday, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said Mr. Duterte accepted Rio’s resignation, which he offered in a letter to the President on Jan. 31 following a conflict with Information and Communications Technology Secretary Gregorio Honasan II over the alleged misuse of about P300 million in intelligence funds.

New body proposed

Rio, a retired brigadier general and former acting secretary of the DICT, told the Inquirer he was surprised by the announcement.

“I may have stepped on some toes,” Rio said, declining to elaborate.

He thanked Mr. Duterte for the opportunity to serve.

The Inquirer has learned that before his resignation was accepted, Rio, an engineer, was selected to head a proposed government body to be called the Information Systems Task Group.

The group would evaluate and oversee digital solutions, including private sector proposals for contact tracing apps, to aid the government in its fight against COVID-19.

The plan, although crucial, came late—three months after the first coronavirus case was detected in the country.

It aims to help the administration rapidly move away from the manual ways it gathers information from various agencies and local governments, which has resulted in delayed and even contradicting figures presented to the public.

Inquirer sources familiar with issues in the DICT said this proposed new task for Rio also played a role in his sudden exit from the DICT—four months after he threatened to resign and called out Honasan’s lack of transparency in the use of shadowy intelligence funds.

Rio had questioned the agency’s disbursement of confidential funds worth P300 million in 2019.

He later retracted this and said, in a joint statement with Honasan, that he was resigning due to “personal reasons,” not because of a rift with Honasan or the disbursement of confidential funds.

May 13 letter

The plan to name Rio chair of the Information Systems Task Group is contained in a May 13 letter to Health Secretary Francisco Duque III from Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., chief implementer of the National Action Plan Against COVID-19. A copy of the letter was obtained by the Inquirer.

The letter was sent a day after experts from the University of the Philippines questioned the integrity of the government’s COVID-19 data.

It was not immediately clear whether the creation of the task group was approved. Galvez did not immediately respond to an Inquirer request for comment.

But in the nine days after Galvez sent his letter, sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized to speak to the media, told the Inquirer that powerful forces were aligned against Rio, culminating in the sudden acceptance of his resignation letter, which he had not withdrawn.

One source said there were lingering concerns about Rio’s independent stand on issues within the DICT, where a “team player” was preferred when it came to implementing the programs being envisioned under the task group.

A second source noted that Rio, along with some members of the IT community, had worried about the privacy features of the StaySafe.ph contact tracing app.

Roque earlier said that StaySafe.ph will be the country’s “official social distancing, health condition reporting and contact tracing system.”

Donated app

The app, which has over 839,335 registered users, was developed by Multisys Technologies Corp.

Multisys CEO David Almirol Jr. told the Inquirer they donated it to the Philippine government.

Regarding concerns that the app will be used for spying on Filipinos, Almirol said they followed the country’s privacy regulations.

Apps such as StaySafe.ph will fall under the control of the Information Systems Task Group, which will oversee a centralized government-controlled depository for “all the data collected by these digital apps” to help policymakers in dealing with COVID-19.

Rio, on Friday, declined to comment on those issues, saying he was prepared to retire after his long years in government service.

When he headed the DICT, Rio oversaw the selection of country’s third major telco player, Dito Telecommunity, which is partly owned by China Telecom.

He also pushed hard for lower internet costs and interconnection rates among the telecommunications providers and the framework for a shared tower policy, which would pave the way for the construction of thousands of new cell sites. —WITH A REPORT FROM JULIE M. AURELIO

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