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Editorial

A black mark

/ 05:30 AM September 29, 2017

The most recent controversy to roil the Duterte administration is a scandal of its own making—or of its own marking. A series of reports by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism has revealed that many statements of assets, liabilities and net worth of Cabinet secretaries requested under the executive order mandating freedom of information in the executive branch were released with  crucial details crossed out with a black marker.

A dutiful presidential spokesman defended the practice. “While we uphold the principle of transparency and accountability in public service, those working in the government, such as members of the Cabinet, still have the right to privacy,” Secretary Ernesto Abella said.

This is an untenable position, first because under the law a public official necessarily accepts restrictions on his or her right to privacy (that’s partly what transparency initiatives like the SALN requirement are about), and second because the administration’s invocation of this right to privacy is so inconsistent as to be incoherent.

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It is ironic that the SALN with the most redactions was that of Communications Secretary Martin Andanar. As the PCIJ noted: “Andanar—an early supporter of the FOI executive order—emerged as having the most types of detail redacted on his SALN: 10, namely Filer’s Address; Spouse’s Office Address; Name, Date of Birth, and Age of Unmarried Minor Children; Description of Real Properties; Exact Location of Real Properties; Acquisition Costs of Real Properties; Acquisition Costs/ Amounts of Personal Properties; Outstanding
Balance of Liabilities; Business Address of Business Interests and Financial Connections; and ID No. of Filer and/or Spouse.”

The SALNs of the 28 other Cabinet-level officials which were released all had redactions, too, from the nine that marked those of Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre and Health Secretary Paulyn Jean Ubial to the two crossings-out that punctuated the SALNs of then Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano and Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo.

But the Civil Service Commission’s own guidelines state that only the residential address of the official who filed the SALN should be crossed out when copies of the statement are released. And in fact, the Dec. 31, 2016, SALN of President Duterte himself, which was included in the batch of statements released under request, blackened only one detail: his address.

So if the President was ready to waive his “right to privacy” by allowing all the details in his SALN save for the sole approved exception to be released to the public, why allow more exceptions for his mere alter egos? It doesn’t compute.

And as it turns out, some of the Cabinet secretaries or representatives on their behalf had allowed earlier SALNs, those they submitted when they assumed office on June 30, 2016, or even before, to be released without redactions. Why follow the transparency principle then, in both spirt and letter, and then not follow it after some six months in high office? Again, it doesn’t compute.

The administration’s attempt to make belated amends only sharpened the difference between the spirit of transparency to which Mr. Duterte had pledged his full support during the presidential campaign and the mysterious “epidemic of redactions,” as the PCIJ phrased it, that afflicted the released statements in question. The Palace said that, in the future, copies of the SALNs of Cabinet secretaries requested under the freedom of information initiative will no longer be redacted. That declaration only makes the public
wonder: So why were the previous copies redacted in the first place?

Let us be clear. Some of the details crossed out cannot possibly be considered minor or trivial. For instance, the location of one of Andanar’s real estate assets was crossed out so that only “Mindanao” could be read. How can that possibly be compliant with either spirit or letter of the principle of transparency? Or, another, more egregious example: The specific values of listed assets in the released SALNs of all 29 Cabinet-level officials were all crossed out. If the main idea behind Republic Act No. 6713 or the SALN Law is to be as open about the wealth of public officials in order to check corruption, how can blacking out the value of the assets help the public monitor the growth, or decline, in the wealth of the Cabinet officials?

It. Doesn’t. Compute.

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TAGS: Cabinet secretaries, Duterte administration, Liabilities, net worth, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, statements of assets
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