CEBU Gov. Junjun Davide has denied there’s a gag order that restricts information to media and the public.

That, amid some noise over a Nov. 12 memorandum from Provincial Administrator Mark Tolentino that “reminded” officials and employees of an existing procedure for the release of records or documents from any provincial government office.

Capitol watchers quickly noted the irony: the requirements of (1) a written request and purpose of the information seeker and (2) approval by the department head were laid down in 2010 by Davide’s predecessor, Gwen Garcia. They recalled that Davide in the 2013 campaign promised transparency, which obliquely criticized the alleged lack of it under Gwen’s term.

Since Junjun took over Capitol, the Gwen memo hadn’t been enforced. Reporters got documents without putting their request in writing. Then, wham, came the Tolentino order. Coincidentally, that was issued after Winston Garcia, who’s facing Davide in the 2016 elections, publicly questioned, using Capitol documents, some of the governor’s projects.

Bureaucratic tool

Media might just be “collateral damage” in the sudden tight enforcement of policy as the heat of campaign intensifies. The leak to Winston could be from someone who had easy access to Capitol documents. And that could be anyone, not necessarily a reporter covering the beat.

The Capitol, like any bureaucracy, is bound to have a record of status and flow of its paper work. While digital technology has refined the system and improved efficiency in keeping and releasing information, there’s also greater demand to prevent any leak or unauthorized publicity.

How then does tightening of information security square with public officials’ professed adherence to transparency?

Alarm, flag

What the lip tribute must mean is that, “yes, we release public documents but since they could be used against us, we should be able to choose which to withhold or bide our time for, protect our secrets, until we’re ready with explanation or defense, or before we’re bound by court order to disclose.”

Tolentino talked of “unscrupulous” persons who want to do harm to Capitol officials. While public documents are supposedly the arbiter in a controversy, there may be some truths the officials wouldn’t want to see light or come out unchallenged.

Power over public records gives the sitting official decided edge. And efficient procedure for release certainly assures that advantage.

Why the written request, department chief’s OK and notice to the governor? They sound the alarm, raise the red flag: Get ready, critics are sniffing out this deal or that project.

Technically none

Davide said there’s no gag order.

He’s right, there’s none, not yet. Tolentino’s reminder about the existing memo doesn’t order a suppression of information. But it can be used to suppress or gag.

The requirements themselves in a way already restrict access but “OK lang” if the department head doesn’t slam the request or doesn’t, without express rejection, sit on it until media’s patience runs out and litigation is needed to get out the document.

Not a gag order by itself, in the sense that Art. 357 of the Revised Penal Code is a gag law, but The Capitol memo can be an instrument for gagging or suppression.

No guidelines

Semantics maybe but the threat is real enough. The so-called procedure may lead to stonewalling which can do serious damage in media work where news stories are highly perishable.

The memo of 2010 that Davide is now enforcing works against media and others who have legitimate request for information.

Guidelines for refusal to release the document sought are not specified. Unless the duty is ministerial and the department chief has no discretion but to approve, the public must know the grounds for rejection, against which the official’s action on the request will be judged.

Ombudsman rules

Compare Capitol’s procedure with rules of the ombudsman’s office on releasing documents. Ombud rules are specific on what wont be publicized and what may be released. Discretion of the “ombud” official is limited to what the law and the office implementing rules allow.

The Capitol memo doesn’t have such specifics, that is, according to news stories about the purported “gag order.” For example, may the department head deny the request of rival politicians vying for Capitol seats? Would they fall under “unscrupulous” persons who, Tolentino said, might do Capitol officials harm?

Value of documents

A reporter was once overheard saying journalists could do without the documents. Data from the p.i.o. would suffice, he said, “besides, even if there are documents, some reporters are too lazy to read them.”

Maybe his breed had already vanished. Or maybe not. But documents, verified as source and genuineness, provide more reliable and specific data than any word-of-mouth information.

The p.r. person tends to omit facts that hurt, and blow up facts that glorify, the publicist’s client. Nothing more trustworthy than checking out what the document says. Has any reporter verified if the total cost of the CICC construction is borne by documents and it’s “P840,202,438.05”? The freaking claim has hung there and many people have accepted it as fact.

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