“Kung wala kang tinatago, wala kang dapat ikatakot.”

Former government officials, lawyers, civil society and youth leaders joined voices and forces on Monday, Sept. 13, at a public forum hosted by the Right to Know, Right Now! (R2KRN) Coalition. Their common cause: resist all attempts by the Ombudsman Samuel Martires to restrict public access to the Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) of public officials.

At the same time, R2RKN issued an open challenge to those who will run as candidates in the May 2022 elections to “sign the necessary waivers in order for us, your voters, to truly get to know you better, keep you accountable, and help us ensure that you are fully capable to discharge the functions of your office.”

In particular, R2RKN, a network of over 100 civil society organizations and leaders, exhorted the candidates to issue:

·  A waiver to allow public access to their SALNs or an equivalent sworn statement of net worth for those with no SALNs as of yet;

·  An irrevocable and unconditional waiver to their bank records; and confidentiality

·  Confidentiality release forms of their medical and health records.

Titled “Who’s Afraid of the SALN Law: Bakit Secret? Bakit Ayaw Ilabas?”, the forum tackled how such restrictions impinge on the citizens’ constitutional right to access information of public concern, promote transparency and accountability, and expose possible cases of corruption in the use of public funds.R2KRN co-convenor Malou Mangahas stated that Memorandum Circular No. 1 that Martires issued in 2020 is an encumbrance on people’s right to know and contravenes provisions of the SALN Law (Republic Act No. 6713) that passed in 1989.The Senate, House of Representatives, the Ombudsman, and the Supreme Court have all recently followed with guidelines that similarly limit public access to SALNs. President Duterte is the first president in 30 years who has failed to publicly disclose his SALN since 2018.

During a House committee hearing on September 9, Martires has even proposed the penalty of five years’ imprisonment for anyone who “makes a comment” on the SALN of any government official or employee.

The restrictions on SALN disclosure are “a big step in darkness, not in transparency, in the wrong direction,” according to former Senator ReneA. V. Saguisag, principal author of RA 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees.

On Martires’s proposal to jail those who raise comments on an official’s SALN, Saguisag, in a message emailed to R2RKN, remarked: “Ano? For asserting a statutory right in an open democracy in the sunlight?”

To Atty. Christian S. Monsod, a framer of the 1987 Constitution, “it seems that the present Ombudsman has forgotten that in a democracy, the people are the principals and the government officials are their agents, and not the other way around.”

The Constitution provides that the duty of the Ombudsman is to attend to the grievances of ordinary citizens and to protect the people; not protect government officials from the people, Monsod said.

“If you cannot handle the risks of public office, don’t aspire for it,” Monsod advised government officials who refuse to disclose their SALN.

Former Comelec Commissioner Atty. Luie Tito F. Guia said that the principle behind the SALN disclosure requirement is the same that underlies the reportorial or disclosure requirements in campaign finance laws – it proceeds from the most basic nature of public office being a public trust, and the necessity of a transparent and accountable government under democracy.

“SALN and net worth declaration will not only afford the voting public valuable information on their candidates; (they) will also provide valuable baseline information on candidates’ compliance with campaign finance rules,” Guia said. SALN disclosure, he added, could help reduce opportunities for corruption.

This was echoed by Maranao civic leader Samira Gutoc, who highlighted the importance of transparency in the use of public funds. “When you steal from the public treasury, in Islamic principle, it’s like stealing the future of children who have no parents and the indigents, the vulnerable…” she said.

With the 2022 elections drawing near, Bibeth Orteza, chairperson of Concerned Artists of the Philippines, challenged upcoming candidates to voluntarily submit their SALN.

While some say that disclosing SALNs might be weaponized against public officials, former Senator Orly Mercado, co-author of the SALN Law in the 8th Congress, said that even if inconsistencies were found in an official’s SALN, the official is not without ability to explain these.

Privacy Commissioner Raymund Liboro, in a statement, said that after the passage of the Data Privacy Act, personal information such as names of minor children and specific residential addresses may be redacted from officials’ public SALNs. However, the Data Privacy Act should not be used as a shield to deny the public access to government officials’ personal information, he said.

Former Internal Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares, meanwhile, said that requesting to see an official’s asset records should not be perceived as an attack or an accusation of corruption at once. “The SALN is a normal situation, it’s an audit function. When you go into government, it’s a given that you surrender a part of your privacy,” she said.

At the same forum, youth leaders and transparency advocates exhorted government officials to release their SALN, citing that “accountability begins with transparency.”

Their calls come in the wake of the issuance by Martires of his Memorandum Circular No. 1, and Martires’s proposal to jail those who would comment on the SALN of public officials.

Atty. Dino de Leon, who has filed a petition at the Supreme Court to request the disclosure of President Duterte’s SALNs, noted that Martires’s circular goes against the spirit of disclosure required in law.

“Even if we may fail, it is important for us to do this. There is no other way to compel our leaders to do the right thing but through the courts,” de Leon said, adding that he filed the petition to set the precedent that the public should participate in nation-building and democracy. “Information is the weapon of the citizens against corrupt, abusive individuals.”

He expressed hope that government officials would realize that it is their personal obligation to disclose their SALN, whether or not the Ombudsman prevents public access.

Equality advocate and Ms. Trans. Global 2020 Mela Habijan emphasized that the SALN was created to ensure that public officials can be trusted.

Bakit natin tatayaan ang mga taong hindi natin mapagkakatiwalaan? Bakit natin tatayaan ang mga taong hindi tapat at hindi kayang bigyan ng paninindigan ang kanilang paglilingkod sa bayan?” she said, adding that voters should demand accountability and that this should begin with transparency.

Erica Jane Navelgas, co-convenor of the FOI Youth Initiative, R2KRN Coalition’s youth arm, detailed her group’s experiences in requesting members of the House of Representatives to release their SALN. To the group’s dismay and frustration, not a single legislator’s office accommodated the request.

“We look up to the Office of the Ombudsman to provide leadership and example to the youth because at the end of the day we are the ones who will inherit this government in the future,” Navelgas said, adding that the government should be fully open and transparent, especially when it comes to public documents like SALNs.

Budget transparency advocates from the Citizens’ Budget Tracker (CBT) also criticized the Ombudsman for infringing on the Filipinos’ right to know the source of wealth of public officials, and the use of public funds, especially during this pandemic.

“Kung wala kang tinatago, wala kang dapat ikatakot,” said Kenneth Isaiah Abante, CBT coordinator. “Kumakatok po kami nang mapayapa, sana may sumagot rin nang mapayapa. Sana may managutan. May tao po bang pwede pang mapagkatiwalaan?”

You may watch the replay of “Who’s Afraid of the SALN Law? Bakit Secret? Bakit Ayaw Ilabas?” here: https://www.facebook.com/R2KRN/videos/607040823627615