Malaluan is Trustee of Action for Economic Reforms and Co-Director of the Institute for Freedom of Information. This piece was published in the January 23, 2012 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.
The public disclosure element plays a very vital cog in the system of accountability that the Constitution wanted to achieve on SALNs. It empowers the citizens to scrutinize and verify the two other main elements of truthful declaration and submission.
But the public disclosure component leaves much to be desired in practice. One mechanism to frustrate compliance is through administrative avoidance. Rather than facilitating the orderly implementation of Section 8 (C) of RA 6713, some government agencies apply instead the general duty, also under RA 6713, to act promptly on letters and requests within 15 days from a request. Any response, including acknowledgement, referral, or indication of future action, is regarded as substantive compliance.
Worse, some major custodians of SALNs have promulgated guidelines that go beyond reasonable regulation of the manner of access, and which appear intended more to subvert the plain, mandatory directive of the Constitution for disclosure of SALNs to the public.
Sadly, the Supreme Court has led in this regard. It first issued an en banc resolution in May 1989 requiring a requester to state the purpose of the request and outlined the conditions under which requests would be denied. In September 1992 it issued an even more restrictive guideline authorizing the Court Administrator to act on requests only upon a court subpoena signed by a presiding judge in a pending criminal case against a judge or court personnel, or upon an appropriate request personally signed by the Ombudsman.
Two other major custodians of SALNs have followed suit. In June 2009 then Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez issued Memorandum Circular No. 1 that limits the legitimate reasons for requests, requires requests to be subscribed and sworn to, and introduces a wide discretion for denying requests for SALNs. More recently, the Civil Service Commission adopted Resolution No. 100356 dated March 15, 2011, which also requires that requests for SALNs be sworn to, imposes additional documentation support from requesters, and charges a fee of P200 for a copy of each SALN.
The Impeachment Complaint by the House of Representatives, and the support for it by the Executive, has raised the bar of compliance to the mandate of the Constitution regarding SALNs. In addition to putting forward the violation of the duty to truthfully declare, submit, and publicly disclose SALNs as an impeachable offense, we hope that it will also facilitate the institutionalization of compliance.
More specifically, we hope that administrative avoidance of disclosure of SALNs stops, that the Supreme Court finally reconsiders its restrictive guidelines on access to SALNs in the judiciary, and that the incumbent Ombudsman as well as the Civil Service Commission also reconsider their similarly restrictive guidelines.
Finally, and most important, we hope that the long overdue passage of the Freedom of Information bill happens at the soonest. Its definite provisions on exceptions, proactive disclosure, procedure for access, and administrative and criminal penalties for violation of the right to information, plug loopholes not only with respect to access to SALNs but to all other government-held information. We also note that the proposed amendments by the Executive on the FOI bill that was submitted last year to the Senate included the requirement to publish SALNs.
In respect to the passage of the FOI bill, we acknowledge the commitment made much earlier by Senate Committee on Public Information Chairman Gregorio Honasan to push the bill. We very much welcome as well the endorsement recently given by President Aquino on the FOI bill. We now keenly await a similar commitment and action on the FOI bill from the House leadership and from House Committee on Public Information Chairman Ben Evardone.