EDITORIAL - Jail term for SALN comments

The Philippine Star
EDITORIAL - Jail term for SALN comments

In keeping with one of his campaign promises, the second executive order issued by President Duterte upon assuming power in 2016 promoted freedom of information in all executive offices, including government-owned or controlled corporations and state universities and colleges.

The long formal title of EO No. 2, issued in July 2016, declares its intent: “Operationalizing in the executive branch the people’s constitutional right to information and the state policies to full public disclosure and transparency in the public service and providing guidelines therefor.”

Since then, the nation has seen that there is a yawning chasm between avowed intentions and implementation. Malacañang has found an ally in the Office of the Ombudsman, whose head Samuel Martires has taken on the role of protector of opaqueness in government.

Martires, who was supposed to retire in 2019, was rewarded with his post in 2018 after he became one of the eight associate justices of the Supreme Court who voted to oust Ma. Lourdes Sereno as chief justice based on a mere quo warranto petition filed by the Office of the Solicitor General. The petition, among other things, raised questions about Sereno’s official statement of assets, liabilities and net worth. SALN issues also contributed to the ouster of Sereno’s predecessor, Renato Corona.

Perhaps with those events in mind, Martires’ stint as ombudsman will be remembered for his order that effectively keeps the SALNs even of top officials led by the president of the republic under lock and key.

While Martires’ order does not prevent any official from allowing the public release of his or her SALN, Malacañang has tossed the ball back to the ombudsman. In this zarzuela, the Palace says it is now up to Martires to release President Duterte’s SALN to the public.

Encouraged, Martires wants to go one step further, proposing to criminalize and impose a five-year jail term for anyone who makes public comments on the SALN issue. Malacañang, which claims that the anti-corruption campaign is a priority, happily declared yesterday that it “respects” the proposal of the Office of Opaqueness.

The Palace took note that the ombudsman is “an independent constitutional body” – something that has been ignored in the recent presidential tirades against another constitutional body that fights corruption: the Commission on Audit.

The ombudsman has enough on its plate fighting corruption, so it should welcome any effort to promote transparency and public accountability. What should be promoted is freedom of information. And what should be criminalized and penalized with a jail term is any brazen effort by a public official to undermine the constitutionaly guaranteed freedom of expression.

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