By Pachico A. Seares
Public & Standards Editor
Sun.Star Cebu and Sun.Star Superbalita [Cebu]
At an en banc membership meeting of the Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC) last June 19, 2008, Pelagio Apostol, deputy ombudsman for Visayas, explained why his office could not release copies of SALN (statements of assets, liabilities, and net worth) unless the central office would approve it.
He feared, he said, the SALN would be used to obtain information that could be used against a public official for harassment, extortion, or robbery.
No one then in the building, the MBF Cebu Press Center, knew about the May 2, 1989 Supreme Court resolution controlling release of SALNs, which figured prominently in the trial against SC Chief Justice Renato Corona.
The resolution says requests for SALNs may be denied, among other grounds, “when the request for information appears to be a fishing expedition for information intended harass or get back at the judge.”
Apparently, Apostol adopted the reason of the SC, with possible exposure of public officials to robbery or extortion thrown in.
The SC rule covered only judges, justices, and court personnel. Why apply it to all public officials? Even if it’s extended to others outside the judiciary, how can the press be suspected of harassing or getting back at any judge? Information is legitimate business of media.
The local ombudsman who preceded Apostol released SALNs to the press without seeking prior central office approval. When he was asked if Manila has imposed the new rule, he said, hold your breath, “it might.” He told us to wait, which took almost two years before he lifted his self-conceived ban.
The SC resolution was adopted during the watch of a Cebuano chief justice, Marcelo B. Fernan, but was affirmed and enforced by all other chief justices after him, including another Cebuano CJ, Hilario Davide Jr., and Corona.
The SC clerk of court testified at the Senate that the en banc court has denied “about eight requests” for SALNs since 1989.
The justices obviously didn’t want to disclose the public documents. SC rules were used not to regulate but to shut the door under the guise of protecting judiciary personnel.
Worse, in Cebu and the rest of the Visayas, the ombudsman, without being told by higher authority, applied the SC policy on public officials who submitted SALNs to his office.
As Apostol told CCPC the reasons, Regional Trial Court Judge Meinrado Paredes muttered from his seat, almost inaudibly, “Nonsense!”
Rising, the judge said the law requiring disclosure of SALNs is precisely to help curb graft. Here was the ombudsman seeking public support to the fight against corruption and yet was pussyfooting in the release of SALNs to media.
The gag on SALNs, however, is not just in the judiciary but also in many other offices of government. While Malacañang and the House actively seek Corona’s ouster for withheld SALNs, the president and 282 House members, including 188 signatories of the impeachment complaint, violated the law as well.
Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) reports on “rank non-compliance” not just in the SC but also, among others, in the Palace, 15th Congress, constitutional commissions, vice president’s office, armed forces (the star-rank officers), and national police.
Whether the Senate will convict or acquit Corona or he’ll throw in the towel before the vote, the problem of SALNs being concealed from the press and the public won’t easily go away.
The law has to be revised to compel disclosure by allowing no discretion of any official to frustrate legislative intent.
Transparency is empty talk if officials can hide SALNs from the press by “shelter” rules like the SC resolution and other means of control elsewhere in government.
Relatedly, the president needs (1) to crack the whip on agencies and offices that still don’t post on the web details of their public spending and (2) to pass the long-overdue Freedom of Information Act.
The Corona trial is not likely to result in unimpeded access to information but there might be some changes.