Legal experts questioned the legality of restrictions imposed by the office of the ombudsman on the release of statements of assets liabilities and net worth, saying these make it virtually impossible for ordinary citizens to access these documents as allowed by law.
The added restrictions, imposed by Ombudsman Samuel Martires in an internal memorandum in 2020, only add to a growing clampdown on transparency by many other branches of government.
In the Roundtable with the Philippine Press Institute last September 22, 2021, former ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales said the current ombudsman has made it virtually impossible for the public to secure SALNs that should be made available by his office.
“During my time, i just allowed requesters to be given the SALN of officials as long as the requester would comply with the rules including the presentation of two ids, and if the requester is media person, the requester must present press id or proof of affiliation,” Morales said.
In Memorandum Circular 1 of 2020, ombudsman Martires is now requiring written and notarized permission from the filer of the SALN before it is released to a requester.
Martires argued that the SALNs were being “weaponized” to harass public officials and employees.
Martires has also centralized all approvals for the release of SALNs with his office.
Former supreme court spokesman and free legal assistance group lawyer Theodore Te said the memorandum defeats the purpose of the SALN law, republic act 6713 or the code of conduct for public officials and employees.
“Hindi mo pwede lagyan ng prohibition kung walang prohibition sa batas. The intent of ra6713 was to make it more transparent and accessible,” Te said in the forum.
“What the new guidelines amount to is a pingpong game, with the prohibition kasi halos imposible maka comply,” Te added.
Karol Ilagan of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism noted how many government agencies started clamping down on the release of SALNs as early as 2010.
Over the years, Ilagan said, the house of representatives and the senate have imposed onerous requirements for the release of the SALNs of their members. In congress, for example, the release of SALNs need to be voted on by the plenary. In the supreme court, release of SALNs need to be approved by the en banc.
“Para ka nang nagpapasa ng batas para makakuha ng saln,” Ilagan said.
Ironically, retired ombudsman Morales said that in her 7 years as ombudsman, she was never able to secure any copies of SALNs from the legislature in the course of her investigations.
Morales said she was told for several years that congress was still busy putting together guidelines for the release of the SALNs, even to her office which is tasked with investigating graft and corruption in government.
Morales and Te also expressed concern over a proposal by ombudsman Martires to impose a five-year jail term against people who make “commentaries” about the SALNs of public officials.
During a public hearing at the house of representatives, Martires batted for the sanctions by claiming that the SALN law only provides for publication of SALNs, but not for commentaries.
“That now (intrudes) on freedom of expression, freedom of information, and freedom of the press,” Te said. “That is a constitutional right, that is a preferred right. Pag sinabi mo na hindi pwede mag comment on matters of SALN, mahirap yun lalo na kung may preso, because it is not only prior restraint but also punishment.”