Survey of reporters:

Execs give flimsy, inane excuses
to rebuff access to info requests

Last of two parts

WHEN U.S. federal authorities caught the family of Maj. Gen. Carlos Garcia smuggling thick wads of dollar bills into the United States in 2003, reporters covering the defense beat scrambled for documents to check out the lifestyle of top officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

So in early 2004, defense reporters filed a request for the Statements of Assets and Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) of Garcia and other officers with the AFP Public Information Office and the AFP’s Office of Ethical Standards and Public Accountability (OESPA).

The SALN is a public document so the reporters thought it was just a routine request. And because the request was also submitted to the OESPA, the office tasked with upholding the highest moral standards of the AFP, they did not expect much of a problem.

But the AFP leadership closed ranks, and closed the door. Request denied.

It wasn’t the first and last time journalists were barred from obtaining information whose availability is guaranteed by the Constitution and further spelled out by the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, or Republic Act No.6713.

The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), for instance, has had doors repeatedly shut in its face for years now while trying to secure data it needed for its reports. Recently, it teamed up with the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP) in conducting a two-week informal survey among journalists in Metro Manila and the provinces to see how other members of the media were faring with similar requests with national and local state agencies.

The Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for does allow exceptions to the disclosure of public documents. That is, if it can be clearly established that national security is at stake, or that clear and present danger may be cast upon national security if the documents were made public. The Code also limits the citizens’ access to information in cases that involve negotiations on foreign-affairs dealings, or when the release of the information may impede law enforcement or cause financial instability.

Alarming reluctance

But the survey’s unfortunate, yet unsurprising, results showed an alarming reluctance by government agencies to allow public access to documents and information for other reasons – especially if the data may prove unflattering to the agencies concerned. In some cases, the agencies involved gave flimsy reasons for refusing access to documents; most of the time, the agencies didn’t even bother to give any reason at all.

For sure, there have been cases where the government agencies were quick to respond to media requests for information. Alex Remollino, a reporter for online newsmagazine, particularly remembers the time when his publication asked the Department of Social Welfare and Development for data on the number of children going hungry in the Philippines.

“In seven days, they were ready,” he says. “Matagal pa rin, pero ok na (Still a bit of a wait, but it turned out fine).”

At the very least, the response came within the period stipulated by the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards, which requires action on a request within 15 working days from its receipt.

Journalists, however, say that too often, requests for access to official documents that are fairly non-controversial and unlikely to cast the agency involved in a negative light are either ignored or turned down.

Dislike for paper?

This may sometimes be because public officials are misdirected, suspicious, or overwhelmed with dislike for the journalist’s publication.

Sangkaterbang beses akong naganyan (I’ve been treated that way so many times),” recalls former Tribune reporter Dona Policar of the countless instances her requests for information were turned down. “Well, I used to be with the Tribune, maybe that’s why.”

The Tribune is a broadsheet that is widely perceived to be impassioned in its criticism of the Arroyo administration.

It could also be that public officials were simply unfamiliar with the concept of freedom of information, or the role of media.

For example, during the canvassing of the May 14, 2007 elections, Roxas City election officer Ginalin Jimenez barred journalists from covering the canvassing of votes in the city.

Jimenez, a lawyer, denied the request of two cable TV companies to cover the canvassing live, saying she would not be comfortable if there are videocameras inside the canvassing hall. When media organizations such as the Capiz Independent Media Circle, the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster sa Pilipinas (KBP), and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) raised an outcry, Jimenez said the journalists were simply unruly, and would disrupt the proceedings of the Board of Canvassers.

In addition, she said the media did not need to see the canvassing, because all the parties in the elections were represented by their own counsels and poll watchers anyway. The media groups argued that while the political parties were well represented in the canvassing, the public eye, in the form of the media, was not.

Media counts

On an even bigger scale, then Commission on Elections (Comelec) chairman Benjamin Abalos ordered media organizations to stop their media counts just two days after the May 2007 elections. Abalos said that the media counts were a form of “trending,” which would only confuse the public as to the real outcome of the elections. Again, the media challenged Abalos’s claim, saying the ban was unconstitutional since it infringed on the public’s right to know. Groups argued that the press has a legitimate interest to report to the public the partial poll returns, especially during the precinct vote-counting.

But the issue remains unresolved on the legal front because the TV networks voluntarily ended their media counts upon reaching their target percentage of votes collated. The issue may rear its head again during the presidential elections in May 2010.

The 2007 polls also saw the Comelec insisting that it would release the list of party-list nominees to the public only after election day. The Commission argued that since the public was voting for party-list groups, voters did not need to know who the groups’ nominees were. The contention was challenged before the Supreme Court because of suspicions that many party-list groups were just being used as fronts by larger political parties and personalities.

In the end, the Supreme Court threw out the Comelec’s argument, ruling that the Commission had overstepped its bounds and committed a grave abuse of discretion.

Misreading of roles

In other instances, it seemed that some government agencies simply did not see any value, or obligation, in releasing any information to the press. This betrays a worrying misreading of the roles of both media and the government.

Remollino recalls a written request he submitted to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) on the number of overseas workers who leave the country every day. He says he did not expect to encounter any difficulties over what he perceived as a harmless and simple request.

Remollino says he was advised to return after five days. When he did so, he was told that the request was still being “processed.” Remollino made at least three follow-up calls with the POEA. Each time, he was told that the POEA had not finished processing his request.

Five years later, Remollino says he hopes that the POEA is no longer processing his request – the story had already been written and published long ago.

Because of the refusal of the POEA to release the requested data, Remollino had to use information that was already two years old. “We just said in the story that we tried to request more recent data [from POEA}, but we were not given any.”

Remollino says he could see no reason for the POEA to hide the data. “I think negligence lang siguro (on the part of the POEA).”

Fat photocopy fee

Reporter Lyn Ramo of Baguio City’s Northern Dispatch, meanwhile, was made to pay P35 per page for a copy of mining applications in the Cordillera and other documents relevant to a story she was doing. By then she had already gone through a gamut of requests, permits, and discussions with officials of the regional Mining and Geosciences Bureau (MGB).

“Earlier, I had asked if I could just have (them) photocopied outside, where the rate ranges from 40 centavos to P1.50 per page,” says Ramo. Since the document was so thick, (the sum) was quite a fortune that came from my hard-earned money as a struggling journalist.”

Sometimes, though, public officials just want to steer clear of any trouble that may arise from the release of official documents – even if such problems would not necessarily involve government interests.

According to Remollino, Bulatlat’s reporters were given a convoluted runaround by Laguna officials two years ago while the journalists were researching a story on the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). Bulatlat had asked the Laguna provincial government for data on land conversion cases in the province.

“We kept on making trips there, they would point us to all directions,” recounts Remollino, who was among the Bulatlat reporters tasked to get the data. “They pointed us to the Register of Deeds, even to the Office of the Governor.”

Secretive or scared?

After two weeks of following up the request, the Bulatlat journalists finally realized that the provincial government had no intention of giving them the data.

Remollino now thinks that the Laguna government just wanted to keep a safe distance from the province’s powerful elite who were behind the large number of conversions being allowed in the province. “The issue was a bit touchy,” he says. “You’d be stepping on the toes of landlords.”

But journalists suspect that the most common reason why government officials dig in their heels when asked for official documents is that they have something to hide, either because they are involved in the matter being investigated or believe they need to protect their bosses.

Reporter Allen Estabillo of MindaNews, for instance, recounts how he was grilled by employees at the city auditor’s office after he asked for a copy of a Commission on Audit (COA) report regarding the alleged overpriced purchase of a lot meant for Koronadal’s city hall complex.

The auditor’s office personnel eventually told Estabillo to write a formal request – and then added that they would need to forward the letter to COA regional office and that it may take more than the 15-day limit before he would get any response. Luckily, Estabillo passed by the office of a journalist-turned-city councilor on his way out of City Hall.

“She had a copy of the COA report,” says Estabillo, “so I got it anyway.”

Catchphrase: Security

Dealing with local governments, however, is nothing compared with trying to extricate official data from the military. Remollino says media colleagues commonly complain that military and police person like to invoke the word “security” as an all-season catchword to stymie inconvenient probes into their internal affairs.

“At the (defense department) alone,” he says, “I hear of many cases where requests (for information) remained pending for several years. With security agencies, it’s really harder to get information.”

What makes it doubly difficult is the culture in the military, which considers everything a secret unless a superior officer gives an explicit order for soldiers to talk. The military also lives by a rather rigid system in which higher-ups apportion everything, from fields of fire to jurisdictions.

And when the documents concern matters that hit very close to home, such as the SALNs of star-rank officers, journalists brace themselves for an often fruitless run through a virtual obstacle course. Says former defense reporter Raffy Jimenez, now an editor in “It’s hard to ask for copies of the generals’ SALNs. Even if I tell them [military] that the Palace and the Senate readily approve this kind of request, there is still no way I can get any SALN [from the DND].”

Indeed, the military made General Garcia’s SALN available to the public only because the Ombudsman finally issued a subpoena for the former deputy military comptroller’s SALN and service records. This was also nine months after Garcia’s wife and one of his sons were arrested by U.S. authorities smuggling $100,000 in cash to the United States.

U.S. Federal authorities had estimated that the Garcias may have brought in as much as $70 million since 1993. As deputy chief of staff for comptrollership, General Garcia was earning a lawful monthly income of only P36,015.

No full-throttle probe

But the military leadership did not launch a full-throttle investigation into Garcia’s finances. Instead, the general was transferred to J5, as deputy chief of staff for plans and programs. Reporters seeking to look into his net worth were given the runaround.

The Ombudsman eventually found that Garcia failed to declare P143 million worth of assets in his SALN. Garcia has since been charged with plunder for amassing P303 million in ill-gotten wealth, and was recently convicted by the Sandiganbayan for perjury involving his severely undervalued SALN. Even then, it was only Garcia’s SALN that was made available; those of the other generals remained under the radar, seemingly among the most tightly guarded state secrets.

Jimenez recalls that reporters were told that the SALNs of the generals were not for public consumption because of “security” concerns. It was not clear if the AFP was implying that the release of the SALNs is considered by the government as a national security concern, or an issue of personal security for the generals.

Still, defense officials may really have had reason to worry – the issue of generals with ostentatious lifestyles while the troops in the field subsisted on crackers and instant noodles was causing rumblings within the restive military.

The Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards, however, is specific in its requirement for officials to disclose information about assets, liabilities, net worth, and business interests, especially since the SALN is not a commonly considered reason to worry over national security, diplomacy, or financial instability.

Reporter Banned

In another case, Inquirer Mindanao correspondent Julie Alipala complains she was banned by military officials from entering military camps because of her persistent questions on the presence of US military personnel in Mindanao, and the status of the offensive against the Abu Sayyaf.

Alipala has requested information several times on the number of US personnel in Mindanao, and the status of their deployment. “So far, walang gustong magbigay ng linaw dito from the AFP [so far, no one from the AFP wants to talk about this],” Alipala said.

But the military took it a step further by banning her from camps after she started inquiring about the offensive against the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan after the deaths of more than a dozen Philippine Marines in 2007.

“I was demanding then from [Western Mindanao Command Chief Lt. Gen. Eugenio] Cedo to provide us figures as to how much the AFP spent for the offensive,” Alipala says. “Nauwi tuloy sa pag ban sa akin [In the end, I was banned from the area].”

Beg, borrow or steal?

The bad news is that the military’s refusal to share even non-secret information with the public has led to some journalists resorting to “borrowing” documents – a euphemism for stealing or pilfering documents. According to a veteran defense reporter, the “borrowed” papers are usually returned, after a quick, illicit engagement with the photocopy machine. It is a dangerous and illegal practice that undermines both press freedom and national security, yet it is a popular one that affords veteran reporters bragging rights if executed flawlessly.

Interestingly, the reporters’ resort to filching documents finds parallel practice by some men in uniform who also occasionally leak documents to the media to foist a spin or trial balloon or outright propaganda. But leaks would always tend to have pitfalls: the leaker usually has his or her own motives for releasing classified information, leave aside the institutional designs of the military or police to score occasional brownie points in the press.

According to the defense reporter, military leaks often take the form of operations or intelligence reports on, say, the communist New People’s Army (NPA), Muslim insurgents, or the Abu Sayyaf. These leaks already incorporate the latest spin that the military wants to peddle on an issue, especially when budget or policy deliberations are under way.

A carefully leaked document on the supposed growth or decline of the NPA, or the alleged presence of foreign members of the Jemaah Islamiyah in Mindanao are seen to be effective cues for the Armed Forces to be given bigger budgets or more benefits, or even breathing spell from scrutiny of its own failures.

Comparing the military’s attitude toward leaking confidential intelligence documents and its stance regarding documents on official or high-level corruption in the military, the reporter observes: “Mukhang mas maluwang pa sila sa mga operations and intel(ligence) reports kesa tungkol sa corruption nila (It seems they’re more lax with information about their operations and intel reports than with those about their corruption).”