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Editorial

What are they hiding?

/ 05:08 AM February 06, 2019

The march toward greater transparency and accountability in government took a giant step backward with the recent insidious move by the House of Representatives to restrict public access to lawmakers’ statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs).

House Resolution No. 2467, authored by Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and adopted on second reading on Jan. 30, imposes next-to-impossible requirements before SALNs can be accessed.

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For example, majority consent of the lawmakers will, for the first time, be required before the release of the SALNs.

The submission of SALNs by public officials — annually, and under oath — is required by both the 1987 Constitution and the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees.

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The SALN declares, among others, the business and financial interests of the public official, as well as those of the spouse and their unmarried children under 18 years old.

The document also includes a waiver authorizing the Ombudsman to secure documents from all government agencies that may show the official’s business interests and financial connections.

That mandate for transparency and accountability is fundamental to the health of the republic: Public office is a public trust, and public officials must prove, at the very least, to be trustworthy people.

Their SALNs are the first and most basic proof of that trustworthiness. Failure to comply with the SALN requirement, and/or untruthful entries therein, is so cardinal a violation that it has led to the dismissal of some of the highest officials in the land, including two chief justices: Renato Corona, removed from office for failure to include assets in his SALN; and Maria Lourdes Sereno, for failure to submit all her SALNs when she applied for the top judicial post.

But, by conjuring new rules that make it harder for journalists and the larger public to access and scrutinize lawmakers’ SALNs, Arroyo’s resolution virtually spits on the spirit and rationale of the law.

Members of media requesting such documents, for instance, must now submit proof under oath of media affiliation and a certification of the accreditation of their media organization — effectively barring freelance journalists.

They have to pay a fee of P300 for a copy of a lawmaker’s SALN, or some P90,000 for all members of the House.

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The House has not only failed to pass the freedom of information bill; now it’s further stacking the deck against transparent governance by making ordinary citizens go through hoops to access what the law says is a public document.

As the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines pointed out, “… a document meant to help advance transparency in government is now being subjected to so many rules and restrictions by the very people entrusted to craft the laws of the land.”

The justification offered by House Majority Leader and Capiz Rep. Fredenil Castro highlights the astoundingly self-serving nature of the move: It’s about protecting the rights of lawmakers against those who may use the SALN for “fishing expeditions,” for harassment and character assassination, he said.

How much more official cosseting and protection do lawmakers need? They are already some of the most powerful people in this country, with the wealth and the wherewithal to buy themselves physical security, command resources in their favor, and use every media available to advance or defend their own narratives.

Unless, of course, the SALNs of those now determined to hide them from the public do contain explosive stuff — information that would raise questions perhaps about the lawmakers’ behavior in office, the provenance of their fortunes, their compliance with various regulations on official disclosure?

A politician who has nothing to hide would surely welcome the chance to prove himself clean before the public.

So what is there in such a document that would effectively allow so-called hostile forces to hijack the standing and reputation of Arroyo et al., and make them objects of harassment or blackmail?

“Ano ba ang ikinatatakot ng mga kasamahan nating mambabatas sa kanilang SALNs at ganoon na lamang kahigpit ang pagsisiwalat nito sa publiko? (What are my fellow lawmakers so afraid of about their SALNs that they’re making it so hard for the public to see them?),” asked Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano.

Same question from Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman: “What is so sacrosanct about the contents of a representative’s SALN that the access to it by the public and media is made inordinately restrictive and tedious?”

What, indeed?

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TAGS: 1987 Constitution, access to SALNs, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, House of Representatives, Inquirer editorial, public accountability, transparency
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