A group of journalists told Ombudsman Samuel R. Martires his restrictions on access to and proposal to punish commentaries on the Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALNs) of public officials are repugnant to transparency and accountability in government he is sworn to promote and safeguard.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, Oct. 20, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said: “As the Ombudsman, he (Martires) should be the first to promote the spirit of transparency and accountability.”
“[T]he Office of the Ombudsman is now seeking to restrict what we can report on from any SALNs that officials and repositories deign to release to us,” it said.
Efforts of Manila Bulletin to get the side of Ombudsman Martires proved futile.
Access to SALNs has been restricted through Memorandum Circular No. 1 issued by Martires in 2020.
Under the memorandum, a copy of SALN will be furnished if “he/she is the declarant or the duly authorized representative of the declarant; the request is upon lawful order of the court in relation to a pending case; and the request is made by the Ombudsman’s Field Investigation Office/Bureau/Unit (FIO/FIB/FIU) for the purpose of conducting a fact-finding investigation.”
“In all other instances, no SALN will be furnished to the requester unless he/she presents a notarized letter of authority from the declarant allowing the release of the requested SALN,” the memorandum also stated.
During his recent appearance before the House Committee on Appropriations, Martires told legislators he wanted to make public copies of SALNs for transparency. But he proposed to amend first Republic Act No. 6713 or the SALN law to make commentaries on the SALNS punishable with a five-year prison term.
The NUJP said Martires is apparently operating on the premise that the media is merely smearing the reputation of government officials when the press report about their SALNs.
It pointed out that reporting the contents of their SALNs “is just one of the many effective tools we can use against corruption.”
It stressed that restricting access to the SALNs makes transparency in government “almost a token act given the Ombudsman’s apparent hesitation to conduct lifestyle checks and other investigations.”
By threatening penalties for the vague proposed offense of “making further commentaries” on government officials’ wealth declarations, NUJP said the media will be reduced to “just stenographers of what politicians say they are worth.”