"Why has he been maneuvering to limit access to public documents that are required for open and transparent government?"
“No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”
This article in the Bill of Rights in our Constitution is crystal clear.
Why then is the Ombudsman obsessed with subverting this fundamental tenet enshrined in the basic law of the land? Why has he been maneuvering to limit access to public documents that are required for open and transparent government? If it is the role of the Ombudsman to weed out corruption and other wrongdoing in public agencies, why is he instituting measures that benefit officials who have something to hide?
Since 2020, Ombudsman Samuel Martires has moved to stop the public—including journalists — from gaining access to the statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs) of government officials, arguing that they have been used to smear their reputations.
At the time, he issued Memorandum Circular No. 1, which says a SALN can only be released if the official being investigated agrees to its release, if the release is covered by a court order, or if a government investigator requests the SALN as part of an ongoing investigation. The order, in effect, shields government officials—including President Duterte and Martires himself—from the public scrutiny of their finances, thus obscuring any evidence of possible wrongdoing.
Now Martires wants to go a step further, and is asking Congress to amend the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, to jail for five years anyone who would issue “further commentaries” on the SALNs of those in government.
“Such use by news and communications media shall be strictly limited to reporting of facts provided in the statement, and no further commentaries could be made thereon,” Martires said in a draft bill that he sent to the House of Representatives.
According to the draft bill, anyone violating this provision will be punished with imprisonment not exceeding five years or a fine not exceeding P5,000, or both.
With this amendment, Martires seeks to dictate to the press what it may or may not do in relation to SALNs. But the last time we looked, the job description for Ombudsman did not include being an official censor. His denial of any attempt at censorship is ludicrous on the face of it. Small wonder that groups such as the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines have denounced Martires’ campaign for what it is—a frontal assault on press freedom.
In pitching this dangerous amendment to Congress, Martires may be counting on lawmakers who also have something to hide. We trust, however, that there are enough honorable and honest legislators who still believe in the need for more transparency, not less, in government affairs.
As for this Ombudsman—he should remember that he is not immune from accountability. Somewhere in the Charter that he has chosen to interpret selectively, there is a provision about how the Ombudsman can be impeached for culpable violations of the Constitution. The press would surely cover that story and provide “further commentaries”—while it is still legal to do so.