Thursday July 19, 2018

Editorial: Hide-and-seek with SALNs

ON most social media networks, you can decide who can see your information. Whatever your reasons, you can block certain people from seeing your tweets, posts, and pictures.

That’s basically what some Cabinet officials have done, except they did so with what’s supposed to be public information on their Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN). In a series of reports last week, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) pointed out that up to 167 details had been redacted—covered by thick black rectangles—in the 29 SALNs that PCIJ had examined.

For instance, PCIJ found out that in Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II and Communications Secretary Martin Andanar’s SALNs as of Dec. 31, 2016, these details had been redacted: how much it cost them to acquire real properties and where these properties were located.

How will these redactions affect the public? It’s too soon to tell, because there is no investigation, as far as we know, of these officials. Speaking to the Philippine Star last Saturday, Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella said that some details were kept from the public to protect the officials’ privacy.

Redaction springs from the Latin “redigere,” meaning, to “bring back.” Barely three weeks into his term, President Rodrigo Duterte showed he would prioritize freedom of information (FOI) in his administration. His second executive order required the Executive Branch to enforce full public disclosure and transparency, without waiting for Congress, which has sat on the FOI bills for roughly two decades.

PCIJ pointed out that among the administration’s officials, President Duterte concealed the least in his latest SALN. Only his private address is blacked out, presumably out of security concerns. While some of his appointees tried to bring back some cover over the details of their wealth and business interests, the President himself showed he had no intention to hide.

And yet, a look at Executive Order 2 should drive home the fact that privacy was always a priority of this administration. In Section 7, EO 2 required government offices to protect “personal information” so that it doesn’t get used to “vilify or harass” the public official concerned.

President Duterte has set an example for his advisers and Cabinet officials to follow, and still most of them have chosen to conceal essential details, without which the SALN’s value as a tool of transparency may be weakened. Nearly 50 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Morfe vs. Mutuc that what would otherwise be considered part of the private sphere—how much an individual has, how much he owes and to whom, the sources of his income—must be a “compulsory revelation” among public officers, to prevent dishonesty in public service. Many Cabinet officials have fallen short of that requirement, as well as the President’s example.