Privacy law, redaction imperil government’s anti-corruption drive

Gigi Grande, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 26 2017 09:54 PM | Updated as of Oct 30 2017 04:47 PM

(UPDATED) PUBLIC ACCESS to information on the wealth and other financial transactions of government officials faces a roadblock, with another law providing a strong excuse against scrutiny.

The 1987 Constitution and Republic Act No. 6713, otherwise known as the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, require all government officials to file Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN).

But some custodians of the SALN have recently used Republic Act 10173, or the Data Privacy Act, to keep portions of the SALN from the public, supposedly to protect the privacy of government officials.

The Commission on Elections (COMELEC) has done the same, redacting portions of the Statement of Campaign Contributions and Expenditures (SOCE).

The filing of the SALN as well as the SOCE are measures that can pinpoint potential conflicts of interest, or track the wealth of government officials. 

Redaction is a crime

Former Senate President Edgardo Angara. File photo 

Former Senator Edgardo Angara, the principal author of the Data Privacy Act, said there was no conflict between the SALN and Privacy laws. He warned government agencies redacting portions of public documents that doing so amounts to falsification, a crime punishable under the Revised Penal Code.

According to a legal dictionary, redaction is when a document is modified, edited or revised to have all confidential and sensitive information taken out of it.

"What should be divulged is the entire document, the SALN, not selected information inside that SALN," he said.

Angara said portions of the SOCE shouldn’t be redacted, either. 

"That amounts to tampering. They should release the report filed by the candidate himself. They should not be editing."

For instance, the Malacanang Records Office (MRO) serves as the repository of the SALN of those in the Executive Department occupying the rank of Cabinet secretary, or lower.

At the advise of the Palace’s Legal Affairs Department, the MRO releases copies of the SALN redacting the exact location of officials’ real properties as well as the acquisition cost.

In a letter received by ABS-CBN on October 30 2017, the MRO said it would no longer redact the specific amounts and costs of assets and liabilities in SALNs submitted by officials to their office. It said the review in policy is in keeping with the spirit of transparency.

The Commission on Elections releases the SOCE without the address and tax identification numbers of campaign contributors.

Entitled to privacy?

The National Privacy Commission (NPC) said government repositories of documents like the SALN and SOCE were just being careful not to break the law. The commission implements the Data Privacy Act.
 
"Everybody's just trying to do (his) job,” said Raymond Liboro, NPC chair. “For the repositories, it's the obligation of the processor to make sure the rights of the subjects whose records they are processing are upheld. You did not surrender your rights by entering government. Everybody is entitled to privacy."

Angara said the intent of the law has been misunderstood.

"If it involves individuals who have become public figures and therefore the filing is required before they assume office or after they assume office, those are public documents and you don't need their consent for it to be released," Angara said. 

"There are penalties for unduly refusing to disclose or release information that is public in nature," he said.

The NPC promised to release this October its official position on the disclosure of information contained in public documents, but has not done so as of writing.

Sensitive information?

Sensitive personal information which does require the consent of the data subject prior to public release includes information about race, ethnic origin, marital status, age, color, religious, philosophical or political affiliations, health, education, genetic or sexual life of a person, according to Section 3(l) of the law.

The Data Privacy Act was borne out of a need to protect very personal and sensitive information like these from being spread on the internet, Angara said.

At the SEC, too

It's not just the SALN and SOCE that have been difficult for the public to obtain in full these days.

Ellen Tordesillas, president of non-profit media organization VERA Files, said the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) now only releases limited information.

SEC policy disallowing reverse search a blow to transparency
The SEC has disabled its reverse search module (RSM), a research tool that provides a list of all the companies linked to a person, due to the Data Privacy Act.

"Mas mahirap,” she said. “Mas kumpleto at mas solid sana ang storya kung backed up by SEC records."

Transparency, integrity

But long before the Data Privacy Act became a law, access to some public documents had already been difficult, even as Section 5 (e) of the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees clearly states that "all public documents must be made accessible to, and readily available for inspection by, the public within reasonable working hours."

Interested parties with a legitimate purpose have been able to obtain the SALN of presidents, vice presidents, and local government officials from the Office of the Ombudsman, in full, without any redactions, save for the officials' current address. 

There is no need to obtain permission from these elected officials prior to release.

The same is true for the Senate. Through the years, the Senate secretariat has been releasing the SALN of senators upon request.

"We (are) public officials and our actions and documents are of public interest," said Angara, a former Senate president.

"This is not just simply for transparency but for the integrity and reputation of the office. We must be open."

No permit, no access

But the Supreme Court drew up its own rules on the public disclosure of the SALN of justices. It tackles, in full-court sessions, all requests to obtain a copy of a justice’s SALN. Depending on the majority decision, the court may grant or reject a request.

The high tribunal has been voluntarily releasing summaries of the SALN in recent years. However, these have no details on real properties, their exact location, and acquisition costs. 

Solons more touchy

The House of Representatives used to release the SALN of its members in full, but it has changed the rules since 2010.

Interested parties must now obtain the permission of each of the 290-plus House members to get their SALN. A congressman may approve or disapprove the request.

Like the Supreme Court, the House releases only SALN summaries of their members.

Fighting corruption

"Ano ba yung intention ng batas?” asked Joy Chavez, co-convenor of the Right to Know Right Now Coalition. “Hindi naman yan mag file ka lang. There are different objectives, like preventing corruption and conflict of interest, and so the government and the citizens can do lifestyle checks. So kung may mga information na broad lang- paano mo makikita ang mga ito?"

Dean Antonio La Viña of the Ateneo School of Government said a full and honest disclosure of these documents is a must to keep honesty in government.

"Kailangan yan kasi it's a way to track corruption, wrong doing, it's a way to track truthfulness," he said.

"In a society like ours where there are so many secrets and so many deals made under the table, the possibility of exposure is the best deterrent for corruption," he said.

Knowledge is dangerous?

In guidelines issued in 2012, the Supreme Court said the issuance of the SALN “must not endanger, diminish or destroy the independence and objectivity of the members of the Judiciary…or expose them to revenge for adverse decisions, kidnapping, extortion, blackmail or other untoward incidents.”

Rep. Reynaldo Umali, chairman of the House SALN Review Committee, also explained why members of Congress prefer not to release their SALN in full.

"Mere knowledge of the extent of your assets can put you at risk. Because if I am a kidnapper and I know that this is what you're worth, then you can be an easy prey to kidnapping," he said.
Angara didn’t buy that explanation.

"Even if your office doesn't disclose it, if someone is intent on kidnapping you, he will somehow find out where you live, where you ride and where you pass. To me, that's a nonsensical explanation," he said.
 
"Yung kidnapper hindi naman yun kukuha ng data sa SALN," Tordesillas chided.

La Viña theorized that some public officials wanted to hide something.

"If you reveal your SALN, and someone investigates and finds other properties and makes a comparison, then some of the contradictions will show," La Viña said. "Yun ang tingin kong tunay na dahilan bakit ayaw nila ipakita ang kabuuan ng SALN. Kasi mabubuko sila, mahuhuli natin yung mga tao."

The full disclosure of public documents to keep public officials honest is certainly one challenge to hurdle.

But the truthfulness and accuracy of those documents is another matter.