May 12, 2014 · Posted in: Access to Information, Civil Society, Free Expression - Asia, Freedom of Information, General, Governance, Local Government, Media, Money Politics, Online Research, Paper Chase
DOCUMENTS ARE KEY in investigating public officials and in uncovering their wealth. However, journalists should also be warned that official documents can lie, just like the officials who prepare them.
Malou Mangahas, director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, gave 16 senior Mindanao editors and journalists a brief on how to investigate public officials using key documents such as the Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALNs), Statements of Contributions and Expenditures (SOCE), and corporate records.
What is important, Mangahas said, is for journalists to learn to appreciate the stories behind the numbers.
“Diligence is key,” Mangahas said. “It is cost and labor intensive, but you need to love the numbers. You need to invest your story with meaningful numbers.”
The SALN, for example, should list the real and personal properties of a government employee or official, as well as his liabilities. If one faithfully follows the current SALN form, real property values would be broken down into acquisition costs, but also in fair market values.
SALNs could reveal not just the current worth of a politician, but his personal, political, and financial connections as well. These are relationships that could be important in making connections between a politician and a contractor angling for public works contracts. These relationships are critical as well in studying relationships between political candidates and campaign donors who may have vested interests that they want to protect or businesses they want to propagate.
Mangahas however noted that documents may also lie, mislead, or misrepresent, depending on the intention of the official who prepared it.
SALNs, for example, can be full of pitfalls for journalists who are unprepared to look at numbers and search for connections. These pitfalls include the partial disclosure of information, the use of old data or understated amounts, or redaction of information. Sometimes the problem is even more basic – some SALNs are still handwritten, as if purposely made illegible to make it more difficult to read the data.
Mangahas also stressed that a single SALN has limited value. The true value of a SALN is that of a tracker document, or part of a series of documents that may show or indicate a pattern of spending or acquisition. This means that a single SALN will not show if a public official is getting richer while in public office.
“It is a very good beginning document, a very good tracker document,” she said.
Documents and numbers also tell their own story if used well by a proficient journalist, Mangahas said. This however requires a healthy attitude towards numbers, and not an aversion to documents and data.
“Documents and numbers have their own narrative,” she said. “If you put your heart into it, you will be able to put together a strong story.”
Financial Times correspondent Roel Landingin for his part spoke to seminar participants about how to interpret financial statements and find trends and patterns of value.
Landingin gave a general description of balance sheets and income statements, and how these could be used to track the health of a company.
“If you add this to the narrative of the human sources, or the people inside, if you add to that the trends based on the financial statements, you get a more complete picture of what happened,” Landingin said. “It gives you insights, so you know the turning points of a company.”
“We could use this to create an analysis of what happened through time,” he added. “You pick up a key variable, look at what happened to it over time, and then you have a good idea what happened to that company.”