Moving in the wrong direction

"How does the Ombudsman’s memorandum help in the fight against corruption in government?"

The recent move by the Office of the Ombudsman to limit public access to the statements of assets and liabilities (SALNs) of government officials is diametrically opposed to the Duterte administration’s avowed policy of transparency.

This policy was clearly set down in an executive order issued by the President in the early days of his administration. Executive Order No. 2, signed on July 23, 2016, provided guidelines to enable people to exercise their constitutional right to information and spelled out state policies for full public disclosure and transparency in the public service.

Transparency, after all, is a key component to fighting corruption in government.

But sadly, EO No. 2 covered only the executive department, and in the more than four years after its signing, Congress has not deigned to pass a freedom of information act that would cover the other two branches of government.

Now the Office of the Ombudsman, which is independent from the executive department, seems to believe public officials need not be open to public scrutiny, either.

The new guidelines issued by Ombudsman Samuel Martires limits access to a SALN to the person who filed it and officers conducting an investigation.

Under a memorandum issued Sept. 1, the Ombudsman will release SALNs only in three situations:

• If the government official who filed it and his or her official representative made a request;

• If it is legally ordered by the court in relation to a pending case; or

• If the request is made through the Office of the Ombudsman’s field investigation office for the purpose of a fact-finding probe.

“In all other instances, no SALN will be furnished to the requester unless he/she presents a notarized letter of authority from the declarant allowing the release of the requested SALN,” the memorandum said.

The memo also states that “all requests to inspect or to take pictures of the SALN will be denied.”

The Ombudsman offers no reason for the new guidelines, saying only that they are in line with Republic Act No. 6713, which is a code of conduct and ethical standards for public officials and employees.

The new guidelines effectively prevent the public from gaining access to SALNs, as the press is not included among those who may obtain copies without a notarized letter of authority from the public officials that filed them.

Under these new guidelines, an investigative journalist wanting to do research on allegations of corruption by a public official must now get the permission of that official first before looking at his or her SALN. How sensible is that? How does that help in the fight against corruption in government?

RA 6713 is very clear:

(1) Any and all statements filed under this Act, shall be made available for inspection at reasonable hours. (2) Such statements shall be made available for copying or reproduction after ten (10) working days from the time they are filed as required by law. (3) Any person requesting a copy of a statement shall be required to pay a reasonable fee to cover the cost of reproduction and mailing of such statement, as well as the cost of certification. (4) Any statement filed under this Act shall be available to the public for a period of ten (10) years after receipt of the statement. After such period, the statement may be destroyed unless needed in an ongoing investigation.

The law also spells out specifically that access to SALNs by news and communications media is allowable for dissemination to the general public.

The Ombudsman may choose to parse a reference to “any duly authorized person requesting a copy of a statement” in the law’s implementing rules and regulations, but we are compelled to ask, how is this being faithful to the spirit of RA 6713.

In brief, it is not faithful to the spirit of the law, and this curtailment of the public’s right to know must not be allowed to stand.

Topics: Editorial , Office of the Ombudsman , statements of assets and liabilities , SALNs
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