MANILA - Criminalizing commentaries on the statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) of public officials will violate the Constitutional provision on freedom of speech, several business groups said on Wednesday.
"We have libel and slander laws to deal with abuse of free speech. We do not need another law," a statement by the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines, Integrity Initiative, Judicial Reform Initiative, and Makati Business Club said.
The groups said they also oppose the proposal because the SALN is part of a system of laws and institutions designed to promote integrity.
"The Ombudsman is part of that system and should be the first to insist on transparency."
Ombudsman Samuel Martires earlier suggested imposing "stringent penalties" on anyone who makes a public comment on any SALN, which he said is not allowed under the law. Martires said those liable may be imprisoned for not less than 5 years.
A framer of the 1987 Constitution slammed Martires, saying the Ombudsman “lost its purpose” as the anti-graft body was never meant to protect officials from public scrutiny.
"From a business perspective, a culture and environment of integrity and good governance is more and more needed to attract investment to create jobs," the business groups said.
They said that to attract investment, business people need to know they have a fair chance to succeed by not having competitors who get an unfair edge by bribing officials.
"The SALN — and the ability to access and comment on it — is important because bribes often end up in assets."
They added that when used properly and well, the SALN can help identify and remove corrupt officials, entrust government to true public servants, and encourage small and big businessmen to invest and create jobs.
"This has never been more important than now, as we try to beat and recover from COVID."
Malou Mangahas, co-convenor of the Right to Know Right Now! Coalition, earlier pointed out that President Rodrigo Duterte was the first president in 30 years not to disclose his SALN.
Mangahas, formerly executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, said Duterte stopped disclosing his SALNs and those of his family in 2018, when PCIJ did a story about the first family’s wealth.