Two years ago, at the height of his administration’s efforts to pin down Sen. Leila de Lima on drug charges, President Duterte had this to say about De Lima’s appeal to spare her family and her private affairs from the President’s tirades: “Anong ‘spare the family’? ’Pag nasa public eye ka, De Lima, your life is an open book (What ‘spare the family’? You’re in the public eye, De Lima, so your life is an open book).”
That declaration sounds just about as categorical as it can get. But, when asked to hew to the same principle of transparency and accountability, he after all being the highest official in the public eye, Mr. Duterte turns hostile, truculent and threatening.
There he was again, for instance, hurling spleen at the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), which recently reported on the huge spike in his wealth and that of his two children, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, and son Paolo, former Davao vice mayor, during their years in public office.
There could be a perfectly rational explanation for what the PCIJ said were lapses in the reporting by the President and his family of their assets through the years, and Mr. Duterte, or his lieutenants, could have simply provided such explanation.
Instead, the President went again on the offensive, branding the well-respected, award-winning group of journalists as paid hacks. They’re being paid, he said, “to attack political figures to serve their clients… Pera-pera lang (it’s all about the money). Don’t ever think they are clean.”
The reaction is of course vintage Duterte. So predictable has this habit become that observers are driven to ask if all this is standard misdirection — the strategy of distracting the public from an onerous issue by foisting on them a more controversial, often scandalous, but certainly attention-getting stunt, such as the President’s by-now patented mode of going after his perceived detractors with curses, gutter language, sexual innuendoes and threats of retribution every time he is asked to account for something.
What is so dangerous about the PCIJ report that has goaded Mr. Duterte into such a conniption?
The report was sourced from official documents—22 of the Dutertes’ statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs) filed since 1998.
On their face, these documents showed that the President’s net worth rose from P9.69 million in 2007 to P28.54 million in 2017—a 195-percent increase; Paolo’s by 233 percent, from P8.34 million to P27.74 million; and Sara’s by 518 percent, from P7.25 million to P44.83 million.
There were no judgments passed in the report, only this legitimate question: How could the family have amassed so many millions from their government salaries and the negligible earnings of their other businesses through the years? The PCIJ also took note of certain items missing or incorrectly provided in the Duterte SALNs — why the document did not hew correctly to the expected protocol in listing and valuing assets, for instance, and why the SALN for certain years were not included.
If, according to Mr. Duterte, a public official’s life is an open book, then the PCIJ report could have been the latest opportunity for him to answer questions about his wealth and shut down his critics for good by proving them wrong.
It’s not the first time, after all, that such questions have been raised; it’s been two years since Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV’s allegation that the First Family had amassed at least a billion in their bank accounts, but to Trillanes’ challenge that the President sign a waiver allowing the release of his bank accounts’ transaction history, Mr. Duterte has only stonewalled.
And now, with the PCIJ report, the President has chosen not only to attack the PCIJ, but also to lay down a newfangled principle that apparently exempts him and his family from the requisite public scrutiny he expects other government officials to abide by.
Whatever his family earned outside of politics is “nobody’s business,” he said curtly. More: “Mayaman? Eh taguin ko. Bakit ko sasabihin sa inyo kung saan ko nailagay? Gago pala kayo eh. May tao ba dito na—ma-holdup pa tayo (I’m rich? I’ll hide it. Why should I tell you where I keep my money? You’re stupid; I might end up getting robbed).”
There is a law, unfortunately for Mr. Duterte, that applies as much to him as to De Lima — and to all other public officials for that matter: Republic Act No. 6713, or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees.
As President — in fact, precisely because he is the President — he is not above that law, and certainly he is not beyond public scrutiny. Once upon a time, he said so himself.
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