In 2016, then candidate Rodrigo Duterte promised to end corruption. That promise echoed that of his predecessor’s, Benigno Aquino III, whose 2010 campaign catchphrase was “Kung walang corrupt walang mahirap” (Without corruption, there would be no poverty).
Corruption is not the only cause of poverty, and neither is it the sole barrier to the making of a prosperous society. But it does contribute to it and diminishes the capacity of governments to better the lives of their constituencies. It can mean fewer classrooms being built, and clinics and hospitals under-equipped because the funds for them have been diverted into some crooked official’s cache of ill-gotten wealth.
But corruption is even more significantly among the primary causes of underdevelopment. Corrupt lawmakers could be bribed to pass laws favoring this or that private interest, or to reject others that would reform the archaic land tenancy system to end the landlessness that has fed social unrest and rebellions in the Philippines for centuries, or to promote the industrialization that would boost employment and worker wages. Both were essential to the progress of this country’s neighbors (Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and China among others), but have not been seriously adopted as policy by any administration.
To address the poverty that the government’s own National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC) says afflicts some 20% of the populace, what is needed is reducing corruption enough to allow the introduction of political, economic and social reforms.
But not only has that evil metastasized throughout government. Its cost has also grown into the tens of billions. The PhilHealth anomaly alone cost the taxpayers P14 billion in misspent funds. The Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) claims that only 50% of the funds the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) allots for infrastructure projects is spent on the roads, bridges, etc., that are constructed, hence their often substandard quality.
If Mr. Aquino III’s promise to end corruption came to nought, so has Mr. Duterte’s. His four-and-a-half years in office have been riddled with one corruption scandal after another in many agencies of government — from those in health to education to immigration to public works.
Mr. Duterte only last week again admitted that corruption has not only endured during his watch; it has even grown despite his claimed commitment to ending it. As if to validate his earlier statement that he is useless in stopping it, he declared in the same breath the secretaries of health and of public works free of corruption despite allegations of wrongdoing against officials of the health insurance system and the DPWH. But he then contradicted himself: he directed the Department of Justice (DoJ) to investigate every department in government, despite the existence of the Office of the Ombudsman, into whose Constitutional mandate the DoJ would now intrude.
Charged with investigating and exposing corruption, that Office has made next to impossible access to the Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) of the President, the Vice-President and the heads of Constitutional commissions by imposing a number of conditions on whoever in the media as well as the rest of the public requests for copies.
By making the DoJ the lead agency in making good his often repeated pledge to end corruption by the end of his term, was Mr. Duterte indirectly chiding the Office of the Ombudsman?
Probably not. Mr. Duterte has not released his 2018 and 2019 SALNs despite requests for them from the media — and despite his own Executive Order No. 2 acknowledging the people’s right to information, establishing a Freedom of Information Program (FOIP), and requiring all agencies of the Executive Branch to make publicly accessible the SALNs of their officials and other information on matters of public interest in their possession.
That executive order has been more honored in the breach than the observance. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) complains that either its requests for government-held information are denied, or its reporters given the run-around by some agencies of the Executive Branch. Meanwhile, the decades-long demand for a law that would make all information held by all three branches of government accessible to the public has foundered on the shoals of Congressional indifference since 1987, when the first of several such bills was filed.
And yet what is most crucial to the success of any campaign against corruption is citizen access to information, among them, but not limited to, the SALNs of government officials, which the law mandates they should file every year. The assumption is that it is among the documents that could provide the public some inkling of whether the assets of the people in government are ill-gotten or not, and if their financial transactions with private entities were aboveboard.
More than the SALN, however, are other sources of information, among them reports in the media. Investigative reporting, for example, is a journalistic enterprise that in countries that claim to be democracies is necessarily focused on holding the powerful to account by looking into what they have been doing, including their possible involvement in corrupt practices, and reporting it to the public.
But few will deny that media access to information has been severely limited by such administration ploys as the Ombudsman’s restrictions on SALN access; journalists’ being banned from covering certain events; critical and even just truth-telling media organizations’ being vilified and shut down; and some practitioners’ being unjustly labeled mercenaries, political partisans, purveyors of “fake news,” and even terrorists and/or members of the New People’s Army (NPA).
The information provided by those ethical and professional journalists who have been so harassed and even threatened includes reports on the grievances of marginalized sectors such as indigenous peoples, workers, and poor farmers. Some also report the human rights violations and other illegal acts in both city and countryside committed by the police and military — and yes, the corrupt practices of both local and national officials.
As incoherent as the ruling clique may be, antipathy to a knowledgeable and critical citizenry is instinctive to it. One can only conclude that it is deliberately preventing independent media practitioners from providing both the public as well as government itself information on the breadth and depth of the suffering among the poor and the marginalized that has historically driven the rebellions and uprisings that still persist today. Recognizing the distress of the needy and disempowered millions for which corruption has been at least partly responsible is indispensable to the making of honest governance and ending the conflicts and social unrest that have haunted this country for centuries.
Any serious campaign to stop or reduce corruption simply cannot do without a well-informed public capable of monitoring government. But neither can it succeed without government awareness of the plight of its citizens and of the link between corruption, poverty, and — for want of a better phrase — rebellion and insurgency.
The very same journalists and media organizations the Duterte regime has been trying to silence have been providing the nation an indispensable service, and it is very well aware of it.
It explains why it is abridging the people’s right to information: it is to prevent the citizenry from demanding that government truly address the roots of poverty by, among other means, curbing the dishonesty in public office that contributes to the hopelessness, hunger and despair that has led many Filipinos to take up the gun. His own regime is in that sense at cross-purposes with Mr. Duterte’s oft repeated promise to end corruption.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).