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SALN access restricted, but largely escapes media criticism | CMFR

SALN access restricted, but largely escapes media criticism

Screengrab from GMA News’ Youtube video.

THE LATEST MOVE to curtail the public’s right to know ironically comes from the government’s watchdog against corruption.

Ombudsman Samuel Martires restricted public access to Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) filed with his office, per Memorandum Circular No. 1, series of 2020, dated September 10 and published in the Ombudsman website on September 15. According to the circular, SALNs may be accessed only by the public official who filed it/ the declarant and an authorized representative of that official. A copy will also be provided to a court hearing a case against the declarant, or to the Ombudsman’s field investigation units for fact-finding purposes.

The media are clearly excluded from the list, although the instruction says that SALNs may be released to any requesting party who has a notarized letter of authority from the official in question.

A bit of context helps interpret the meaning of the Memorandum:

Republic Act 6713, or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, includes among its implementing rules and regulations, the national Office of the Ombudsman as the custodian of the SALNs of the president, vice president and officials of Constitutional commissions. The same law mandates that the SALNs of all public officials and employees must be filed on or before April 30 of every year. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Civil Service Commission moved the deadline of submission to August 31.

The SALN is a powerful tool against corruption as it enables the public to check the illegal accumulation of wealth of public officials even while they are still in office.

To this day, President Rodrigo Duterte has not filed his SALNs for 2018. For a president who has constantly expressed disdain against corruption, Duterte himself has been secretive about his wealth. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) reported in December 2019 that they requested a copy of Duterte’s SALN for 2018 and did not receive it. Turning to the Ombudsman as SALN custodian, PCIJ was refused its request, as Martires claimed the office was preparing new guidelines for access to such documents. PCIJ said that in contrast, the predecessors of Martires had affirmed the “public disclosure policy” for all SALNs.

For the kind of work that requires access to information and documents, there was little protest from the media about the impediment to their journalistic duty and the public’s fundamental right to information. Only a select few reported that the SALN is among the bases for assuring the transparency that is required of public officials.

CMFR monitored the coverage of six Manila-based broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin, Manila Standard, The Manila Times, Daily Tribune), four primetime news programs (ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol, TV5’s One Balita Pilipinas, GMA-7’s 24 Oras, and CNN Philippines’ News Night), the online counterparts of these broadsheets and channels, and independent news sites from September 15-17.

In print, the Inquirer, the Times and the Bulletin did not report on the memo. The Star, theTribune and the Standard gave front and second page treatment to the circular, as well as statements of Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque that the media should respect and follow the Ombudsman’s prescribed procedure. However, these reports did not discuss the implications of the restrictions on the FOI policy, which the president announced in 2016.

In broadcast, News Night did not pick up the issue. TV Patrol and One Balita Pilipinas discussed the memo and cited statements from academics, current and former senators who called for transparency. TV Patrol cited the government’s use of a quo warranto petition which ousted Maria Lourdes Sereno as Chief Justice, using her failure to provide the old SALNs she had filed during her tenure in the University of the Philippines.

CMFR cheers the reports that emphasized the legal bases for the public’s right to know and the necessary context that helps appreciate the Ombudsman’s intentions.

24 Oras’ September 16 report identified the provision in RA 6713 that specifies the public’s right to know officials’ “assets, liabilities, net worth and financial and business interests” and the Constitutional provision on the public’s right to access official records. 24 Oras included an interview with Atty. Eirene Aguila of the Right to Know, Right Now Coalition, who said the new rules of the Ombudsman only worsen the already burdensome process of getting SALN copies. GMA News Online reported the same provisions.

Philstar.com and Inquirer.net both pointed out that while he signed an executive order mandating public access to information held by agencies of the Executive Department , Duterte himself has not been open about his assets. Their reports referred to PCIJ’s December 2019 observation that it was the first time in the last 30 years that a Philippine president has not publicized his SALN for 2018.

Rappler also reported provisions in the Constitution and RA 6713, adding that Martires did not specify the legal basis for the new rules. Rappler called attention to the similar reluctance on SALN publication by Congress and Judiciary, since both have started requiring the submission of notarized SALN request forms. The report said that in contrast, Vice President Leni Robredo readily granted media requests for her 2018 and 2019 SALNs. Media coverage which ignored the Ombudsman’s memo, or reported this without critical context, raises questions about how journalists can do the job of government watchdog, if they are not interested in the SALN. It ignores the public’s increasing demand for government accountability and the obvious contradiction of the memo to the president’s oft-repeated claim that he is against corruption.