In new official rules, Ombudsman restricts public access to SALN

It's official – the Office of the Ombudsman has restricted public access to officials' Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN).

In Memorandum Circular No. 1 Series of 2020 uploaded on the Ombudsman's website on Tuesday, September 15, access to SALNs shall only be given to: 

  • The official or a duly authorized representative
  • A requester acting on a court order in relation to a pending case
  • The Office of the Ombudsman's Field Investigation Office for the purpose of conducting fact-finding investigation

This will now cover the 2019 SALNs of public officials filed last August 30. In past years, the Office of the Ombudsman granted the media access to the SALNs of the officials under their jurisdiction – presidents, vice presidents, heads of constitutional bodies.

Ombudsman Samuel Martires stopped giving media access to these SALNs beginning last year covering the 2018 SALNs. His new circular just made it official.

Under Martires' circular, even government agencies cannot readily access the SALNs unless the subject officials give their authority.

If the requester insists that the SALN is for a lifestyle check, the new circular said the Ombudsman "shall advise the requester to submit instead a verified complaint, together with the documentary evidence he/she may have gathered against the declarant, for appropriate action of an Ombudsman lawyer-evaluator."

This means that the access to SALNs depends on the willingness of officials to grant it.

Rappler has filed with Malacañang Freedom of Information (FOI) requests for President Rodrigo Duterte's 2018 and 2019 SALNs. Duterte's 2018 SALN is still a secret.

"This would be the first time in the last 30 years that a President has not released his or her SALN," the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism said in 2019. (PODCAST: Duterte's secretive Malacañang)

Congress, Judiciary clamp up too

The Supreme Court used to release summaries of the justices' SALNs but it has also stopped this practice beginning last year covering the 2018 SALNs. In 2019, Rappler requested access to the full SALNs of the justices for 2018 but the request was denied by the en banc.

Now, the Supreme Court requires that anybody who requests must submit a notarized form. (READ: Why don't we know enough about Supreme Court justices’ wealth?)

Even the House of Representatives and the Senate also require notarization of the requesting forms, adding a new layer to the process.

In contrast, Vice President Leni Robredo's 2018 and 2019 SALNs have been publicized because the Office of the Vice President (OVP) readily granted media's requests.

What's the legal basis?

Martires' Memorandum Circular did not cite a specific legal basis for these new rules, just that it was pursuant to "the provisions of the Implementing Rules and Regulations of Republic Act No. 6713, otherwise known as the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees."

The Code of Conduct for Public Officials allows journalists to obtain copies of SALNs and report on them. Section 7 (D) of the code prohibits the use of any statement made in the SALN for commercial purposes “other than by news and communications media for dissemination to the general public.”

Section 7, Article III of the Constitution says: “Access to official records, and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.”

– Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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