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Palace defends redactions in Cabinet SALNs

Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella was faced with questions on the invocation of privacy among government officers in relation to the need for transparency and public accountability after several SALN redactions were released to the public. Davao City Mayor’s Office/File

MANILA, Philippines — Malacañang invoked yesterday every Filipino citizen’s right to privacy and the provisions of the Data Privacy Act in the move to censor or redact portions of the 2016 statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) of President Duterte’s Cabinet members.

It will convene a meeting next week with all concerned agencies designated as SALN repositories to discuss guidelines that may focus on the redaction or revision.

Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella was faced with questions on the invocation of privacy among government officers in relation to the need for transparency and public accountability after several SALN redactions were released to the public.

He cited the right to privacy when the Office of the President moved to redact portions of the SALN of Cabinet members.

“While we uphold the principle of transparency and accountability in public service, those working in the government, such as members of the Cabinet, still have the right to privacy,” Abella reasoned.

He is concerned that some unscrupulous individuals may use sensitive personal information and other data contained in the SALN to harass people or commit fraud.  

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“We, therefore, consider security concerns as valid issues,” Abella said.

The failure to declare in his SALN his foreign account deposits led to the impeachment of the late chief justice Renato Corona in 2012. This decision, according to some of his defense lawyers, raised the bar of standards on SALN declarations. 

Privacy vs Constitution

Asked why the Palace invoked privacy issues over the Constitutional provision that mandates the submission and declaration of assets, liabilities and net worth to the public, Assistant Secretary for legal affairs Kris Ablan said the disclosure must be done in a manner provided by law.

He pointed out that between the SALN law and the Data Privacy Act, it is the latter that encompasses all previous laws related to the disclosure of private information of Filipinos, whether private citizens or state workers.  

Malacañang’s stand came amid the filing of impeachment complaints against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who is being questioned for not providing in her SALN the true and complete details of the millions of pesos she allegedly received while serving as co-counsel in the government’s case against Piatco.

The dismissed impeachment complaint against Commission on Elections Chairman Andres Baustista also used the SALN declarations as reference for alleged illegal wealth.

FOI vs data protection

Abella explained that with the Data Privacy Act enforced fully this year, data protection officers are obliged to redact items in the SALN to protect the right to privacy of government workers, including Cabinet members.

He added that this is about being consistent with global data protection regulations. 

Some sectors criticized the redactions on the 2016 SALN of Cabinet members as it raised questions on Duterte’s call for transparency and accountability.

The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) reported the issue on the redactions made by the Office of the President on the SALN of Cabinet secretaries before these documents were released to the media.

Pressed on the reasons to limit public access to information listed on a cabinet member’s SALN, Communications Assistant Secretary Quenee Rodulfo explained that the Office of the President invoked Data Privacy Act because it is a law, as against the Freedom of Information, which is just an executive order.

Under Section 17, Article XI of the 1987 Constitution and Section 8 of Republic Act 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, the SALN is required for every government official or public officer.

Both provide that “a public officer or employee shall, upon assumption of office and as often thereafter as may be required by law, submit a declaration under oath of his assets, liabilities and net worth.”

“In the case of the President, the Vice President, the Members of the Cabinet, the Congress, the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Commissions and other constitutional offices, and officers of the armed forces with general or flag rank, the declaration shall be disclosed to the public in the manner provided by law,” it also indicated.

Apart from the Constitution, both RA 6713 and the Administrative Code of 1987 mandate the submission and full disclosure of the SALN by government officials.

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