SALN stonewalling

According to a report last week by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, President Duterte has yet to publicly disclose his 2018 statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) — eight months after the deadline for filing last April 30, and despite repeated requests by the news organization for its copy.

That makes Mr. Duterte, the PCIJ noted, the first president in 30 years, or since the law on the filing of SALNs was enacted in 1989, not to make the required public disclosure of the document.

The PCIJ said it had filed a series of requests for a copy of the President’s SALN from June to November this year, but these requests were allegedly tossed back and forth between the Ombudsman and the Office of the Executive Secretary.

Furthermore, it was told that the Ombudsman has yet to finalize new guidelines on the release of the SALN of the President and other high officials.

What happened to the much-vaunted anticorruption and transparency stance of the Duterte administration, with the highest official of the land appearing to lead the effort to subvert the rules and stymie public scrutiny of a vital document required by the Constitution?

And what new guidelines does the Office of the Ombudsman need for the SALN to be released, when year in and year out for the last three decades, this instrument of public accountability and safeguard against corruption had been routinely released to the media and the public?

The law establishing the public’s right to this annual exercise in transparency can’t be any clearer. Article XI, Section 17 of the Constitution says all public officers and employees are required to submit a declaration of their assets, liabilities and net worth under oath, and that the SALN be “disclosed to the public in the manner provided by law.”

The Ombudsman, in the case of the President, the Vice President and other high officials, would be the custodian of the records.

Republic Act No. 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, meanwhile, provides that “public officials and employees have an obligation to accomplish and submit declarations under oath of, and the public has the right to know their assets, liabilities, net worth and financial business interests including those of their spouses and unmarried children under 18 years of age living in their households.”

Any government that makes the fight against corruption one of its mantras (the President spent much of his last State of the Nation Address railing against it) must lead the way, and the SALN is but one of the ways to walk the talk.

Thus, when the Office of the President or his executive secretary and the Office of the Ombudsman play pass the ball, the public’s right to information is shabbily disregarded.

According to the PCIJ, this is how Ombudsman Samuel Martires replied to their requests: “Well, you can go to the Office of the Executive Secretary.”

When they did, however, presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo tossed the matter back to the Ombudsman, saying it was the latter’s decision and that Malacañang cannot dictate on the Ombudsman. Natch.

Incredibly, Panelo also said laws do not require the President to “personally and directly furnish a copy thereof to the media or to whomever wants it.”

This sudden media shyness is puzzling, as it goes against the very policy of transparency Mr. Duterte himself outlined and Malacañang made much of when the President issued Executive Order No. 2, mandating a “freedom of information” (FOI) environment in the executive department.

The EO — grandiloquently titled “Operationalizing in the Executive Branch the people’s constitutional right to information and the state policies to full public disclosure and transparency in the public service and providing guidelines therefor” — reminds officials of the executive branch to, yes, file their SALN and make it “available for public scrutiny.”

Only last week, Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar urged Congress, in a speech, to pass the FOI law, which was a major campaign promise of Mr. Duterte.

“Freedom of Information must be implemented across the bureaucracy: the executive, legislature, judiciary, including the local government units,” said Andanar. “While the state wields immense power entrusted to it by the people, the exercise of said power can be placed under the lens of strict scrutiny through transparency, through the freedom of information.”

Andanar should be addressing his appeal first and foremost to his boss, since the repeated and unprecedented stonewalling on the release of the presidential SALN speaks volumes about the sincerity of this administration to level with the Filipino public.