Cabaero: ‘We protect’ (not) the public

·2 min read

GO TO the website of the Office of the Ombudsman and you will see its slogan— “We protect.”

The line refers to its mandate to enforce public accountability and act as the central corruption prevention arm of the government. The website at www.ombudsman.gov.ph offers a facility to file a complaint and make a request for a copy of a statement of assets, liabilities, and net worth (SALN) required of those in government. But you will not see a SALN there, and Ombudsman Samuel Martires wants to keep it that way or, if you get a copy of a SALN, he wishes to limit what you can say or write.

It makes you wonder if “We protect” refers to protecting the interests of the public or of those in government who somehow could escape scrutiny of their wealth.

The reporting of the press on SALNs is not a smear campaign on government officials, but Martires thinks media reports can easily become a means to discredit and slander them. Martires proposed to the House of Representatives the approval of amendments to the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, to impose the penalty of up to five years imprisonment and/or a fine to anyone who issues “further commentaries” on SALNs.

“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,” his proposal to the House said.

Instead of protecting the right of the people to such information, the Ombudsman is limiting that right and is seeking to penalize those who wish to discuss and comment on the SALNs.

Transparency groups criticized this as censorship and contrary to the requirement of transparency and accountability in government. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism quoted in a report transparency advocates who rejected Martires’ proposal as vague and equivalent to censorship. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines insisted that reporting on the SALN is part of the vital role of the press in a democracy. University of the Philippines journalism professor Danilo Arao was quoted by the Inquirer as saying Martires’ proposal promotes a kind of journalism that “defeats the purpose of in-depth reportage where ‘further commentaries’ are absolutely necessary in providing context.”

The Ombudsman ordered last year a limit to who could access SALNs. The statements could be released only by the government official who filed it; if ordered by the court; and by an Ombudsman office as part of a fact-finding probe.

These limits already restrict access to information on the wealth of officials. The additional restriction on commentary that Martires is now proposing to the House will be another stumbling block to transparency initiatives. With these restrictions on SALNs, the Office of the Ombudsman’s slogan might as well read—“We protect” not the public, but the government officials from scrutiny of their wealth.

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