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BIR as top human rights violator

It took the Bureau of Internal Revenue’s disgraceful ad featuring a doctor sitting on a teacher’s shoulders for citizens to protest. However, this was only the latest installment in an increasingly alarming shame campaign that must be reexamined under the lens of human rights.

Commission on Human Rights Chair Etta Rosales recently criticized a Batangas mayor for parading an alleged tuyo (dried fish) thief around a market, his hands bound behind him, an “I am a thief” sign on his shirt. “While he was not physically harmed, he was treated with indignity and psychologically punished,” Rosales protested. Years ago, the CHR likewise sued Alfredo Lim, then Manila mayor, for spray-painting houses with the message that suspected drug pushers lived there. The Court of Appeals declared Lim’s shame campaign unconstitutional.

No similar legal outcry (beyond a disapproval of the bad taste) was raised when the BIR ad insinuated that overworked teachers take up the slack for stereotypical tax-evading doctors. Nor was there lawyerly objection to previous ads with a list of implied tax-evading businesses or disclosures of the names of and amounts paid by top taxpayers.

We have been conditioned to associate human rights violations only with violence. Consider the Supreme Court’s recent decision on the Cybercrime Prevention Act. Outraged netizens erroneously decried how the law created online libel yet ignored how the same decision clipped the government’s unrestricted power to collect traffic data and conduct broad electronic surveillance.

The BIR shame campaign has raised due-process issues. A newspaper ad does not even present a clear venue where one may defend himself. Last January, the BIR doused holiday cheer by publishing a list of top-rated lechon (roast pig) vendors and the allegedly minimal taxes they paid in 2012. An owner of Cebu’s Zubuchon decried the ad as extremely misleading because 2012 was the small company’s first full year of operations. He criticized the BIR’s use of rankings from foodie websites and countered that based on slaughterhouse data, Zubuchon actually had one of the smallest lechon volumes in Cebu. (He added that he donated a dozen lechon to the President’s campaign in 2010!)

Where the national media publicized the BIR’s lechon list, Zubuchon’s defense was made only on the blog “Market Manila.” This is precisely the lopsided scenario that justifies libel, where the government steps in to give the underdog relief, except that the Goliath to Zubuchon’s David was the government itself.

The BIR campaign also shows how Filipinos are not conscious of their fundamental right to privacy, to control and withhold information about oneself. Financial information is obviously respected, as recognized by our longstanding laws on the secrecy of bank deposits, and one’s tax return is obviously one of the most private items in this category. Indeed, the tax code makes it criminal for BIR officers to improperly disclose information regarding a taxpayer’s income.

The BIR’s 2011 list of top taxpayers was led by actress Kris Aquino. She was followed by a solar power company executive and an investment banker who are clearly not public figures. Having a large salary is not an automatic waiver of one’s right to financial privacy. The BIR said it was publicizing top taxpayers’ payments not to praise them, but to shame those not on the list, which is not a justification for making financial privacy collateral damage in the shame campaign. One who, as a child, had classmates whose relatives were kidnap victims would readily appreciate the point.

The right to privacy also empowers one to control one’s identity and its underlying dignity. This is emphasized by the phrasing of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation.” This formulation is what the CHR threw at Lim over his spray-painting campaign.

Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio’s dissent in the 2003 MVRS Publications case illustrates this. A Bulgar tabloid article stated that Muslims worshipped pigs, inciting a libel case from Muslim associations. The high court ruled that libel requires a defamatory statement against particular people, not against a large group in general. Carpio pushed to invoke the ICCPR and Civil Code “privacy torts” that require people to respect others’ dignity. This dissent, based on Carpio’s student article as a Philippine Law Journal chair, has become more famous than the majority opinion.

Replace Muslims with doctors and Bulgar with the BIR ad, and one has the same obnoxious scenario. As a son of a doctor who worked in a government hospital, I find the shotgun attack on doctors’ dignity identical to the same ICCPR violation that Carpio decried as “outrageous profanity.”

We are blessed to have a BIR commissioner as tireless and unconventional as Kim Henares. Nevertheless, there is no shame in reflecting over the valid concerns that her aggressive measures raise. If Jesus said there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one tax collector who repents than the entry of 99 righteous persons, perhaps the tarring and feathering of one law-abiding citizen should weigh heavier than the arrest of 99 tax evaders. In the context of human rights as collateral damage, one recalls Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s question: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”

Oscar Franklin Tan (@oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan) cochairs the Philippine Bar Association Committee on Constitutional Law and teaches at the University of the East.

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