How to Improve the SALN

“It has become clear that the SALN has been misused and weaponized.”

Over the years, the Supreme Court has made pronouncements about the SALN, the statement of assets and liabilities and net worth required by the 1987 Constitution and special laws. In the case of RE: Request of Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), the Court said “…while “public concern” like “public interest” eludes exact definition and has been said to embrace a broad spectrum of subjects which the public may want to know, either because such matters directly affect their lives, or simply because such matters naturally arouse the interest of an ordinary citizen, the Constitution itself, under Section 17, Article XI, has classified the information disclosed in the SALN as a matter of public concern and interest. In other words, a “duty to disclose” sprang from the “right to know.”

In the same case, the Supreme Court also stated that the enforcement and access to the SALN of officials is subject to regulation. Thus, it pronounced that “Like all constitutional guarantees, however, the right to information, with its companion right of access to official records, is not absolute. While providing guaranty for that right, the Constitution also provides that the people’s right to know is limited to “matters of public concern” and is further subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.”

For example, under the law, it is unlawful for any person to obtain or use any statement filed for (a) any purpose contrary to morals or public policy; or (b) any commercial purpose other than by news and communications media for dissemination to the general public.

Having said this, as I have written elsewhere, it has become clear that the SALN has been misused and weaponized. I have pointed out that the Corona impeachment and the Sereno ouster opened a genie, a monster of bad governance and politics, that we must put back into the bottle.

More recently, we see the misuse of the SALN again in the case of Justice Marvic Leonen. Thankfully, the Supreme Court correctly refused to release the latter’s SALN, a noteworthy decision because the Court acted to protect its most prominent and senior dissenter. As a long-time colleague, I can also vouch for the bedrock integrity of Justice Leonen. One can only speculate on who is behind the fishing expedition against him.

Weaponizing the SALN is against public policy. When the Supreme Court and the Ombudsman, or any government office, does not cooperate with disgruntled litigants, they are doing the right thing. The reality is that only powerful people can weaponize and misuse the SALN.

That is why I support the Ombudsman decision to reform the SALN. I acknowledge that the new guidelines on access of the SALN are more restrictive compared to the old guidelines as the former limits the individuals who can request copies of a government official’s SALN to the declarant and for officers conducting investigations. But this is necessary to save the SALN and restore it to its original constitutional role based on the principles of transparency and accountability. That role, in particular the access of media to SALNs, must be respected.

No. 1, Series of 2020, clearly recognizes the need to put a stop to this practice.

Its other role is forensic – and that is subject to criminal as well as administrative procedure. The SALN can be proffered as evidence but never to be considered as the end-all and be-all in any court action. The SALN is not the be-all and end-all of integrity.

I look forward to proposals that would strengthen both the SALN and lifestyle checks, making sure they cannot be weaponized for political and similar ends but retaining its value as an assurance of transparency and a limited forensic tool for criminal prosecution and administrative cases.

I share the same observations as that of the Ombudsman; at least insofar as his belief that the SALN law should be reviewed by Congress since it is being used more and more as a tool in ways other than what it was originally intended. We have seen in the past and even up to the present how the SALN has become a favorite, if not a most convenient, weapon to be used against political rivals or to sully the good name of government officials.I do support giving media organizations, following proper procedures and subject to reasonable conditions, full access to the SALN of government officials. Media organizations exist primarily to inform, analyze, educate or even expose anomalies/corruption which the general public has the right to know. As I have written, having followed their SALN reports and analyses through decades, I can definitely say that the work of the PCIJ on SALN has always been excellent, rigorous, and non-partisan. The PCIJ has always conformed to the highest standards of journalistic ethics and it must be allowed to continue its great work.

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