DRIFT and confusion. Some pockets of transparency but most everywhere, a predilection for opaqueness and more barriers to access in place. This is the access to information regime that lingers in the Philippines nearly a year after Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III came to power on a “Social Contract with the Filipino People,” which he said would be defined by transparency, accountability, and good governance.
But a seven-month PCIJ audit of how 27 national agencies deal with access to information requests shows spotty proof of Aquino’s recipe for good governance in the processes and practices of these agencies. While a few stand out as exemplars of transparency, the majority remain stuck in the old ways of opaque government, with some even sliding back into darker corners.
A CLEAR, working system – with specific procedures and dedicated staff personnel – triggers quick, correct, and complete action by some government agencies on access to information requests.
But the absence of such a system in most other agencies, as well as the lack of fully defined rules and procedures that all agencies must observe in responding to requests, remain barriers to access.
THEY are supposed to be the exemplars when it comes to compliance with the law requiring all civil servants to declare and disclose the full details of their assets, liabilities and net worth.
After all, the Office of the Ombudsman is vastly empowered by the Constitution to serve as the premier integrity and anti-graft agency of the land.
But only token compliance to absolute indifference to the law on the filing and disclosure of their Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) seems to be the attitude and conduct common to Ombudsman Ma. Merceditas N. Gutierrez and her 11 deputy and assistant Ombudsmen.
TOMORROW, March 16, the 283-member House of Representatives plans to vote in plenary on the impeachment complaint against Ombudsman Ma. Merceditas N. Gutierrez. At least 95 votes are needed for the complaint to move to the Senate, which alone under the law may sit as the impeachment tribunal to try Gutierrez for several counts of alleged betrayal of the public trust.
Yet other than the vote, the effort to impeach Gutierrez – the third attempt in as many years by the House and the only one to move past its Committee on Justice – has unfolded with two discussion tracks as backdrop. The first is an exchange of allegations of blackmail between Gutierrez’s camp and the lawmakers. The second is a vigorous campaign being mounted by both sides to court public opinion against each other.
FOUR anti-graft czars and 22 years since its birth on Nov. 17, 1989, the Office of the Ombudsman of the Philippines has failed to strike fear in the hearts of crooks, or summon full respect from the people it is supposed to protect against crooks.
All four chiefs of the Office – the late Conrado M. Vasquez, who served from May 1988 to September 1995; Aniano A. Desierto, October 1995 to September 2002; Simeon V. Marcelo, October 2002 to November 2005; and the incumbent Ma. Merceditas N. Gutierrez, December 2005 to November 2012 – had launched their stints as the nation’s top graft-busters with firm, elaborate, hopeful reforms to fight corruption.
When the criticisms trickled in – invariably over low conviction rates, perceived partiality toward the presidents who appointed them, and sheer failure to cope with tremendous case loads and hail crooks to jail – all four trudged on. What they ended serving up, though, were not more and better results, but more excuses (Desierto and Gutierrez doing so more than the other two).
AS FORMER Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo tells it, he had implemented the tight security system at the Office because he had found out that some lawyers who used to work there were involved in ‘fixing’ cases. They would even meet up at the Office’s Quezon City headquarters to do their dirty deeds, he recounts.
So Marcelo had closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras installed, which he says later helped in stopping these former employees from continuing with their illegal deals. Some of these lawyers were even banned from the Office unless they had a scheduled hearing, he says.
ANIANO DESIERTO, the country’s second Ombudsman, used to be a broadcast newsman, but current chief graftbuster Merceditas N. Gutierrez has turned out to be more of a media creature than he ever was. She has been, in fact, a “tri-media personality,” running a personal column in a business daily, even as she co-hosted a radio show and a TV program on state-run media.
It may then not be far-fetched to assume that she and the agency that she heads would be more forthcoming than other government officials and institutions on information requested by the public or at the very least the media. Besides, as “protector of the people,” the Ombudsman’s Office is supposed to lead government in promoting transparency, efficiency, and quality of service to all citizens.
Yet while all procedures on accessing the Ombudsman’s key frontline services are spelled out on paper, actual experiences by some complainants, lawyers, and journalists reveal a side of the Office that is not very accessible and responsive to citizens’ needs.