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Want to know officials’ wealth? Pay P200!


While covering the plunder case against retired Armed Forces comptroller Carlos Garcia a few years back, we had to request for copies of court hearing transcripts.

This was crucial because as a small and independent media outfit, Newsbreak could not assign a full-time

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reporter to cover the hearing. We needed the transcripts to be able to follow developments on it.

To our consternation, we were told that the court’s stenographers charged a horrendous P3.50 for each page! Worse, since the transcripts were printed in what seemed to be a 16-point Times New Roman font (double-spaced), each page usually contained only about 30 lines of text—sometimes even a lot less.

At that rate, the transcript for a single trial often exceeded 100 pages. The transcript for one of the hearings I needed to review would have cost almost, if not over, a thousand pesos.

With limited funds, we had to limit our request to only a couple of select transcripts.

That meant I was not able to scrutinize substantial portions of the trial proceedings, some of which—such as the hearings where COA auditor Heidi Mendoza was presented—later turned out to be crucial in the case.

The prosecutors presented Mendoza to the court at least 8 times. Getting transcripts for all those hearings would have been too costly for us.

Unfortunately, except for a few particular hearing dates, the mainstream media was also not covering the case on a regular basis. It was little wonder why everyone got confused by the time the plea bargain deal was leaked to the media. Former Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo initially got the impression that the defense already filed a demurrer to evidence and later apologized for the misinformation.

We encountered this cost problem not just at the Sandiganbayan. Prior to this, I also ranted to my colleagues about the cost of photocopying services at the Senate—roughly as much as that charged by the Sandiganbayan stenographers.

I am glad that this is no longer much of a problem now that bills, the history of legislations, and session proceedings are available online on the websites of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Access to court decisions has also somewhat improved. The latest Supreme Court and Sandiganbayan decisions are also available online.

There’s still much to wish for though.

The transcripts of committee hearings for both houses of Congress are still not available online. Ditto for the court hearings. Which is weird considering that we taxpayers are already paying for the wages of stenographers documenting those hearings.

It only takes just a couple of additional clicks to convert those transcripts to PDF (portable document format) files. You don’t even need to purchase special software. Most word processors now allow you to save documents in PDF.

All that

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is needed is a change in perspective and an appreciation of tools already available.

Because they are not doing it, those who wish to review committee proceedings have no choice but to photocopy the hard-copy versions of those transcripts.

The transcript of one of the Senate Blue Ribbon committee hearings on the Garcia plea bargain deal alone was over 2 inches thick. Even if we could afford to photocopy everything, think of all the paper wasted and the trees the paper manufacturers had to cut as a result.

At any rate, I think this is something proponents of the right to information act should seriously look into.

The bill provides that government agencies handling information “may charge reasonable reimbursement for the cost of reproduction, copying or transcription of the information requested.”

I have no problem with agencies imposing reasonable charges for photocopying. But what can be considered “reasonable cost?”

The answer to that will determine if the law would really help provide the public better access to information, or could be used by gatekeepers to justify putting up cost barriers to access.

Consider this example: Last March 15, the Civil Service Commission (CSC) issued new guidelines on how to access the statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs) of government officials and employees.

Those who have gone through the process of requesting SALNs will find that very little is new in the guidelines.

The only thing that’s really new is the fee. The Commission now charges a whopping P200 for every SALN declaration requested!

Government officials are required by law to submit a declaration upon entering government service and every year thereafter. To find out if a person used his position to accumulate wealth, you need to get his initial declaration and succeeding ones.

Journalists who have done investigative reporting will also tell you that the SALNs are just the starting point. They only provide baseline information on a public official.

When we investigated the wealth of retired military comptroller Jacinto Ligot, we also had to secure documents from other government agencies to prove that he acquired real estate and other properties while in office.

It will be difficult to do that now, given the new fees.

What this means is that if I want to do a lifestyle check on a public official who has been in government for over 5 years, I will have to spend P1, 000 pesos for his SALNs alone.

The BIR’s tax evasion case against Mikey Arroyo required analysis of his SALNs from 2001 to 2010—that’s 10 SALNs in all, or P2,000.

Our researcher tried to reason with the CSC records officers, telling them that we do

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not need certified true copies, to no avail.

We were not even allowed to view the documents before paying. (I was hoping our researcher could just take pictures of the documents with his camera phone. Or at least we could assess before paying if the data we will be getting is worth it. But no; he was told that we had to pay first.)

It’s obvious that the guidelines were clearly formulated by people who do not want to improve access to the SALNs.

I believe they were put up to limit access

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and discourage enterprising reporters from digging deeper into the lifestyles of our public officials.

It’s a simple cost-benefit analysis.

The way things are, putting together investigative stories already takes more human effort and resources than the simple “he said, she said” pieces or blogs.

And when the story eventually comes out, it will have to compete with Entertainment and Celebrity news for eyeballs online.

Given that, why would a media owner then waste P2,000 buying SALNs when his news website can get the same amount of pageviews–if not more—running a low-cost story on the gowns that Mommy Dionesia Pacquiao will be wearing for her birthday bash?

You tell me.

CATEGORY: Blogs, Gemma Bagayaua-Mendoza
  1. Warren Concepcion says:

    Sec. 7, Art. III of the 1987 Phil. Constitution enshrined the people’s right to information on matters of public concern. The memorandum requiring payment of P200 per declaration runs against this constitutional guaranteed right.

    Assuming arguendo that payment is required, P200 per declaration is too much for a piece of document. Photocopy cost will only be less than P10 or P20 but not the costing projected by the CSC.

    The P200 payment is an overkill. Fight for our right to public information.

  2. Yang Tseng says:

    Why can’t they just make those information available online? That way users will be able to limit their spending on the printing of these materials.

  3. ‘since the transcripts were printed in what seemed to be a 16-point Times New Roman font (double-spaced), each page usually contained only about 30 lines of text—sometimes even a lot less.’

    You were luckier Gemma. in our time, TSN are typed quadrupled spaced, and cost P5.00 per page.

    As regards decisions of SCORP and OMBUDSMAN being online now, while they provide easier accessibility, such do not provide more transparency. Decisions are culled from arguments of both parties, but where a court is bias, it picks up only the argument of one party. Other than decisions being published online, the court should post also the accompanying briefs of both litiigants so the public can see through if the decision is above-board or one-sided to favor those who could afford the cost of a favorable decision.


    Totally agree with that.


    Come to think of it, it might have cost more than P3.50. =) What I do clearly recall was that I was shocked at the cost of the TSNs. Also shocked when the stenographers literally acted like vendors trading their wares in a tiangge when they learned I wanted to buy transcripts from the Garcia case. Apparently the proceeds go to them.


    To give them the benefit of the doubt, they could be putting the SALNs in the same league as Birth and Marriage certificates. NSO charges about P300 to get copies of those if you file the request online. But they fail to appreciate the whole point behind making the SALN accessible. Here are relevant portions of RA 6713:

    (C) Accessibility of documents. – (1) Any and all statements filed under this Act, shall be made available for inspection at reasonable hours.
    (2) Such statements shall be made available for copying or reproduction after ten (10) working days from the time they are filed as required by law.
    (3) Any person requesting a copy of a statement shall be required to pay a REASONABLE FEE to cover the cost of reproduction and mailing of such statement, as well as the cost of certification.
    (4) Any statement filed under this Act shall be available to the public for a period of ten (10) years after receipt of the statement. After such period, the statement may be destroyed unless needed in an ongoing investigation.

    Note: (1) Cost of reproduction is a lot less than P200; (2) Our researcher was there, no need to mail; (3) We told them we did not need certified true copies so no certification cost.

  7. Yes, Gemma, court stenographers get the fee. I do not know if the judge shares with the income of these stenographers. They are already paid as clerks. It is extra income for them using government time and resources.

  8. Perhaps the accusation of not wanting to improve access to these documents could be separated from the want to generate revenue.

  9. gener de guzman says:

    Obviously Chairman Francisco Duque’s vault is now depleted since it’s been years since he left the income generating PhilHealth. Kaya gumagawa na siya ng scheme to replenish it. Kawawang Bayan. Matuwid na daan ba ito?

  10. Warren Concepcion says:

    I wonder what will the Office of the President will say about this circular??

  11. pls try to experience this: many, if not most, stenographers are paid or directly receive the payments for the tsn but they either keep the entire amount for themselves remitting nothing to the government (court)or remit only a portion of the money keep the rest for themselves.


    Yes. That was actually the case when I tried to get copies of the TSNs from the Sandiganbayan. The stenographers acted like they were vending their wares because the money goes to them, not to the court. The court cashier knows.

  13. To the Honorable Supreme Court, the Office of the Ombudsman, the Civil Service Commission: Are you planing, po, to conduct at least random inspection and entrapment of those stenographers so that your people would witness, first hand, the misdeeds, or would you just contend yourself in waiting for someone to file a complaint which is difficult to do kasi court personnel ang babangain mo ? Kung ang mganabangit na opisina ang mag-i-initiate ay baka marami silang mahuhuli.

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