by Delon Porcalla – The Philippine Star, 21 Oct 2021
MANILA, Philippines — Ombudsman Samuel Martires is proposing to amend the 32-year-old Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees (Republic Act 6713) to provide fines and jail term for commentaries made on public officials’ statement of assets and liabilities (SALNs).
Submitting a draft bill to the House of Representatives, Martires said he wants “to make stringent penalties that anyone who makes a comment on the SALN of a particular government official and employee must be liable for at least an imprisonment of not less than five years and a fine not exceeding P5,000.”
“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,” the former Supreme Court and anti-graft court Sandiganbayan justice said.
Section 8 (D) of RA 6713 prohibits any person to obtain or use the SALN for purposes “contrary to morals or public policy, or any commercial purpose other than by news and communications media for dissemination to the general public.”
The ombudsman declared that this is for “transparency, which is why the independent, constitutional body supports the publication of the SALN for informational purposes and factual reportage subject to existing rules and regulations.”
Martires said the penal provision in the draft bill only “re-echoes what can already be found” in Section 11 of the 32-year-old law. He nevertheless said the bill “is still subject to scrutiny, refinement and deliberation by the House as a law-making body.”
In the draft bill, he also proposed that the office of the executive secretary, or what government bureaucrats call the “Little President,” be the sole repository of SALNs of the president, vice president and all other national officials, instead of the ombudsman.
“Each repository shall have the exclusive authority in approving any request for copying, reproduction, inspection or any other form of access to such statements and shall enact reasonable conditions, guidelines, rules and regulations,” a portion of the bill read.
Martires reiterated that the draft bill does not stifle press freedom since there is “no censorship or any restriction on the freedom of speech or expression to speak of” in the proposed measure.
He said the amendments he wanted to introduce in the law that the late president Corazon Aquino signed in February 1989 were “nothing more than an expansion, for purposes of clarity, of provisions already existing in the law.”
In September 2020 or when the 2021 budget of the Office of the Ombudsman was being deliberated at the House, Martires stood pat on his policy that he would not release the SALN of President Duterte for as long as requirements for copies are not met.
“Even if I will be bashed, even if I will be removed from office, I will not bat an eyelid. I am sorry to say that. I’m willing to be removed if only to defend the Memorandum Circular that I issued last year (2019),” he told administration and opposition lawmakers.
He said he had been a victim of media vilification, when it was reported that he earned P15 million in three months’ time based on his SALN, but that the media entity that reported it never bothered to get his side.
Martires’ circular provides that SALNs may be given only to an official or his duly authorized representative through a court order, for a pending case and if the request was made by the Ombudsman’s Field Investigation Office.
Martires first floated his proposal during the House committee on appropriations’ deliberation on the ombudsman’s proposed budget for 2022 on Sept. 9. He said SALNs are being weaponized to malign the reputation of public officials. – Elizabeth Marcelo