Vantage Point

Despite the people’s Constitutionally protected right to information, the Office of the Ombudsman has issued a memorandum restricting access to the Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALNs) of the officials that are in its custody, among them that of the President.

Because President Rodrigo Duterte’s 2016 Executive Order No. 2 mandating public access to information held by agencies under the Executive Department is still in force (though hardly of any use), some of his die-hard followers are saying he had no hand in it, and that by issuing Memorandum Circular No. 1, Series of 2020, Duterte appointee Samuel Martires is risking his displeasure.

But it seems likely that Mr. Duterte knew about it before it was issued, was consulted about it, and approved of it. No official of the regime would have risked provoking his ire by doing something seemingly in conflict with his supposedly anti-corruption policy without clearing it with him. The Office of the Ombudsman is by law independent, but as some Presidents, specially Mr. Duterte, have demonstrated, the law can be ignored with impunity by a chief executive determined to impose his will even on those branches of government that are supposed to be independent and coequal, such as the Courts and Congress. Resistance can be costly: as the supreme appointing power in government, and with his control over the budget process, Presidential disfavor can mean not getting that wished-for appointment, or drastic cuts in one’s agency’s funding.

The Palace’s reaction to the Memorandum — its “respecting” it rather than taking issue with it — also speaks volumes about how much of a deception is Mr. Duterte’s supposed commitment to freedom of information. He has himself refused to make his 2018 SALN public despite a 2019 request from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ). When PCIJ staff requested Martires for it, they were told he was preparing new guidelines for the release of the SALNs in the custody of his Office. Because the Martires Memorandum covers Mr. Duterte’s 2019 SALN, that document is now similarly inaccessible to the media and the public.

The Memorandum limits access to the SALNs of the country’s highest officials only to those who filed them or their representatives; to an individual with a court order regarding a pending case; and to the field investigation units of the Office of the Ombudsman itself during an investigation. Issued in the context of already ongoing public and media difficulties in getting government-held information including Mr. Duterte’s own SALNs, the restrictions qualify as part of the regime ploy to deny the media and the public access to information, which has included attacks on the independent press and journalists, and the shutdown of the free television and radio services of ABS-CBN network.

The attacks on independent journalists — barring them from covering Mr. Duterte, red-baiting and demonizing them as terrorists, filing criminal libel suits against them, withdrawing the registration of media organizations — and the shutdown of ABS-CBN have one thing in common: they were moved by government officials’ disapproval of the way they and their statements and acts were being reported. They disdain being asked the questions responsible journalism demands practitioners should raise. They resent the exposure of their wrongdoing by those journalists and media organizations that take seriously the Fourth Estate function of monitoring and holding power to account. Like their Malacañang patron, they pay lip service to free expression and the people’s right to know, but do all they can to frustrate both.

The reason should be clear enough. Information on what government is doing, which includes its officials’ amassing unexplained wealth as a possible sign of plunder, theft of public funds, taking kickbacks, and other forms of unlawful behavior, is vital to the need to end or at least keep corruption at a minimum. Without knowing what the President down to the lowest-ranking clerk are up to, not only containing corruption, but also changing things for the better is next to impossible — and likely to delude the public into thinking that everything is honest and aboveboard.

That was exactly what happened during the Marcos dictatorship, the 48th anniversary of whose inception was marked this week. With media under government restriction, and secrecy the government policy, during that period (1972-1986) most Filipinos were kept in the dark not only about the human rights violations, the war in Mindanao, the rice and energy crisis, and the growing public debt, but also about the unprecedented levels of regime corruption whose legacies of poverty and underdevelopment still haunt this country today.

The framers of the 1987 Constitution included in that document such provisions as acknowledging the people’s right to know and created a number of government oversight agencies to prevent a repetition of the past. But in the fourth year of the Duterte administration, the State agency charged with investigating and penalizing public sector corruption, the Office of the Ombudsman, is restricting access to information on the assets, liabilities, net worth and financial and business interests of the country’s highest officials on grounds that lawyers’ groups have described as without any legal basis.

The Memorandum cites the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees (Republic Act 6713) to justify the restrictions. But the Act only names the Office of the Ombudsman custodian of the SALNs of the President, Vice-President, and officials of Constitutional commissions. It does not authorize the Office to limit access to those documents, which by law are supposed to be available to the public. The same law recognizes the people’s right to be informed about “the assets, liabilities, net worth and financial and business interests” of all government officials.

The Duterte regime’s denying the public access to government information prevents the populace’s meaningful involvement in the politics and governance of this country as the essential condition to bringing about the social, economic and political changes needed to bring it to the 21st century — changes Mr. Duterte was promising during his 2016 campaign for the Presidency, and in anticipation of which he was elected by 33% of the electorate. And yet his regime is curtailing the right to information because it instinctively knows that knowledge is profoundly empowering and that the truth can enable the citizenry to take control of their own lives through active political engagement and informed decision-making.

Lack of information and the resulting confusion have already made millions of Filipinos leery of political and civic involvement. They do vote every three years, but often with a large dose of cynicism and indifference to the consequences of their choosing for officials the clowns, crooks, assassins, and dolts with whom the Philippines has been burdened since Commonwealth days.

Ours is supposed to be the Information Age. Trillions of bytes of information deluge billions throughout the planet daily via online media and print, film and broadcasting. But here we still are in the Philippines, with much of the populace denied the knowledge they need to make sense of what’s happening and to change what needs changing.

It is a government-abetted information crisis in furtherance of keeping things the way they are and have always been. Change is not coming. What is in store for this country for so long as the oligarchy is in power is more of the same poverty, corruption, indifference to the people’s woes, incompetence, tyranny and sheer mindlessness that have plagued it for decades — or worse.


Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).