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Ombudsman: No censorship in draft bill for SALN reportage

Delon Porcalla - The Philippine Star
Ombudsman: No censorship in draft bill for SALN reportage
The former Supreme Court and Sandiganbayan justice wants the 32-year-old “Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees” or Republic Act 6713 amended, where fines and jail terms can be made for commentaries on SALNs.
STAR / File

MANILA, Philippines — Ombudsman Samuel Martires stood pat on his position that the draft bill he submitted to the House of Representatives does not stifle the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press, because there is no censorship on officials’ statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN).

The former Supreme Court and Sandiganbayan justice wants the 32-year-old “Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees” or Republic Act 6713 amended, where fines and jail terms can be made for commentaries on SALNs.

“There is no censorship or any restriction on the freedom of speech or expression to speak of in the proposed measure. It’s nothing more than an expansion, for purposes of clarity, of provisions already existing in the law,” Martires insisted.

The law, governing the annual submission of the SALN of government employees and officials, was signed by the late president Cory Aquino in February 1989.

The Ombudsman reminded media that all versions of the story should be heard and not just one party who may have an ax to grind – or harbor any motive for that matter – against specific government officials.

Martires said much is expected from the so-called fourth estate in giving the public the factual reporting of the whole picture and not just the myopic one dimension of an issue, “unless the purpose is simply to destroy the office or the head of office.”

According to him, to “disseminate information must be taken in the context that it is made for informational purposes without further commentaries.”

In an Ombudsman budget hearing at the House last year, he expressed bewilderment on why the public was so fixated in the SALNs of the President and Vice President when even lower ranking government officials are also vulnerable to graft and corruption.

“Is it only the President and Vice President who are capable of corruption? Is not corruption starting from the grassroots, or even from the branch or the government clerks?” he asked the administration and opposition lawmakers.

Stringent penalties

“What I am proposing is to make stringent penalties, that anyone who makes a comment on this SALN of a particular government official and employee must be liable for at least an imprisonment of not less than five years, and a fine not exceeding P5,000,” he said.

“Such use by news and communications media shall be strictly limited to reporting of facts provided in the statement, and no further commentaries could be made thereon,” the Ombudsman – the government’s chief anti-graft buster – proposed.

Section 8 of RA 6713 prohibits any person to obtain or use the SALN for purposes “contrary to morals or public policy, or any commercial purpose other than by news and communications media for dissemination to the general public.”

The Ombudsman declared that this is for “transparency,” which is why the independent, constitutional body “supports the publication of the SALN for informational purposes and factual reportage subject to existing rules and regulations.”

As far as Martires is concerned, the penal provision in the draft bill only “re-echoes what can already be found” in Section 11 of the 32-year-old law. He nevertheless said the bill “is still subject to scrutiny, refinement and deliberation by the House as a law-making body.”

In the draft bill, Martires also proposed that the office of the executive secretary – or what government bureaucrats call the “Little President” – be the sole repository of SALNs of the president, vice president and all other national officials, instead of the Ombudsman.

“Each repository shall have the exclusive authority in approving any request for copying, reproduction, inspection, or any other form of access to such statements and shall enact reasonable conditions, guidelines, rules and regulations,” a portion of the bill read.

OMBUDSMAN SALN
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