The Philippines’ top justice official has ordered the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to cease investigating foreign-facing online gaming licensees (POGOs) amid accusations that NBI staff are extorting operators.
Incoming justice secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla said on Thursday (July 28) that the NBI “is getting a very bad reputation on the matter” following “a lot” of industry complaints that NIB officers are engaging in hulidap, or extortion, when probing POGO operations.
“I told the NBI to stop activities against POGOs,” he told reporters in a mixture of English and Tagalog during a Rotary Club meeting in Manila. “The NIB was not ordinanced to raise money out of illegal activities.
“The NBI was not established to be used for only arresting foreigners or businessmen. We had to put a stop to that and right now,” Remulla said.
“I asked [NIB Officer in Charge Medardo] De Lemos to stop everybody from operating on POGOs because we are getting a very bad reputation on the matter.”
POGO licensees “kidnap each other”, “sue each other” and “in the end they’ll just settle with each other”, Remulla said. “So we are just wasting our time [getting involved]. We were just being dragged into the intramurals [internal matters], so we have to stop it.”
Remulla did not state if he had issued a formal instruction to prevent POGO investigations, or if accused officials are under investigation.
But he added: “We will only act if there is really a police matter that is necessary for us to police or for the NBI to work on, but in the meantime we will not do it because it may worsen the situation.”
Remulla’s extraordinary announcement hints at a turning point in government handling of foreign-facing online gaming licensees, whose advancing compliance requirements and tax audits under the administration of Rodrigo Duterte drove out numerous POGOs and service companies.
It also serves as a grim sequel of high-level malfeasance to a massive racket run by immigration officials throughout the Philippines’ largest airport, in which POGO and illegal online gaming employees from China were waved through immigration in exchange for bribes.
The announcement comes within a month of the inauguration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. for his six-year term, and suggests that Marcos, like Duterte, will not be inclined to attack POGO licensees with the ferocity that Beijing has demanded since before the coronavirus pandemic began.
It also suggests that the Marcos government may be interested in the POGO segment restoring some of its lustre and earning power that suffered terribly under pressure from Beijing, pandemic labour restrictions, and bureaucratic scrutiny.
Marcos has yet to name the new chairman of gambling regulator PAGCOR, a key policy index on the future of online and land-based gaming in the Philippines.