On July 23, 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte signed Executive Order No. 2 mandating public access to information held by the agencies and offices of the executive branch. The non-governmental organizations that have been campaigning for a freedom of information (FOI) act for decades welcomed it with cautious optimism. The EO encouraged the legislature and judiciary to do the same, but the FOI advocates nevertheless pointed out the need for a law that would cover all three branches of government.
Access to information is both a public right as well as an indispensable means of checking corruption by enabling citizen monitoring of government. But the Benigno Aquino III administration and its allies in the House of Representatives resisted the enactment of any FOI law during its entire six-year watch (2010-2016).
Mr. Aquino III said at one point that the press was already “too powerful” and did not need an FOI act. He was mistaken in assuming that it would serve only the media. Such a law would benefit the citizenry most by making readily accessible information on what government is doing and plans to do as a means of uncovering and checking wrong-doing and corruption.
A Senate version passed that chamber, and several FOI bills were filed in the House during the past administration. But most of the latter contained so many exemptions to what information can be accessed that if passed they would have limited rather than enhanced the public’s capacity to obtain government-held information. Other versions not as flawed were prevented from being passed by such obviously contrived barriers as lack of quorum, and some congressmen’s introducing unacceptable riders in the bills, among them right of reply provisions.
FOI advocates initially welcomed the Duterte EO as an indication of the regime’s departure from the Aquino III administration’s opposition to a freedom of information act. Within months after the signing of EO No.2, however, hope had turned into disappointment.
Not only was there no indication that the House would ever pass an FOI bill into law. The Duterte EO itself also made it even more difficult to obtain information from the agencies and offices of the executive branch. Requests for information from the media were either rejected outright because the requested information is among those that Malacanang had decreed may not be released, or given the run-around on the argument that the information being requested was in this or that office rather than in the custody of the agency where the request was originally filed. Some offices also devised complicated processes that made getting information from them extremely difficult.
The long and the short of it is that the Duterte regime, despite EO No. 2 and Mr. Duterte’s repeated claims of commitment to reducing if not ending government corruption, eventually demonstrated that it is as opposed to freedom of information as its predecessor.
Make that even more opposed. Instead of an FOI bill, Mr. Duterte’s House allies passed last January 30 a resolution making it nearly impossible for the public and the media to access their Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN), which contain information crucial to monitoring corruption among members of the House of Representatives.
House Resolution 2467 pays lip service to the Constitution by citing that document’s requiring every government official and employee to file a SALN on or before April 30 every year, but in reality violates it by undermining the people’s right to information.
The resolution imposes severe restrictions on accessing the SALNs of the so-called representatives of the people. The restrictions were put together by the SALN Review and Compliance Committee that Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo created, with some of her closest accomplices in that body as members.
Its most obviously repressive provision is Rule V, Section 14, which makes the release of information on any congressman or woman’s SALN possible only with the approval of the House plenary — meaning the majority of its current membership of over 200.
The congressman or woman whose SALN has been requested can also object to its being released. Only copies of the latest SALNs can be provided. Requests for previous statements will be granted only if considered “justifiable” by the SALN committee and the House Secretary General. Comparing the past and present SALNs of a government official is of course one way of establishing by how much his or her assets have grown and whether they can be explained or not.
The requesting party is also required to submit a form containing personal and employment information, the purpose of the request, and why copies of previous SALNs are being requested. It specifically mentions the media, and imposes additional requirements on any media person’s request, among them proof of his or her media affiliation and the media organization’s accreditation to establish the legitimacy of the media practitioner.
The same resolution imposes a number of other conditions and threatens the requesting party with criminal, civil and administrative liability in case he or she violates any of them.
Once a request is approved, copies of the SALN will cost P300 each — which means that a request for several SALNs can be costly. But in addition, the copies will be released only after they have been edited by the House’s Director of Records Management, specifically by blacking out the address of the SALN declarant, the names of his unmarried children below 18, the locations of his real estate properties, the names and addresses of his business and financial connections and those of his relatives in government, and other data.
These restrictions do not only make it difficult, they make it practically impossible to get a copy of the SALN of any member of the House because of the requirement that it be approved by the plenary and its release allowed by the subject concerned. But even if a request is granted, the SALN copies would be practically useless, since they have been redacted prior to their release.
Meanwhile, the provision that requires a media person to provide proof of his or her media affiliation effectively prevents free-lance journalists from even filing a request for a copy of a House member’s SALN.
Equally disturbing is the SALN Review and Compliance Committee’s being empowered to question and evaluate the purpose of the request. A journalist who is doing research to determine if there was a suspiciously huge increase in a House member’s assets, which may prove that he or she may have personally benefitted from, say, the construction of a bridge or roadwork by a company owned by a relative, would be prevented from getting that information by the restrictions imposed by HR 2467.
What is glaringly evident is that the resolution is meant to conceal wrong-doing by preventing the information to which citizens are entitled from getting to them either through their own efforts or the media’s.
Those responsible for this latest outrage — almost the entire House membership passed it — against good and honest governance are not representatives of the people. Like their co-conspirators in the executive and judicial branches of government, they represent only themselves and their personal, familial, and class interests to the detriment of the people’s own. That is the message HR 2467 is loudly and clearly sending to the entire citizenry.