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
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.
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
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.