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Freedom of information vs data privacy

MALACAÑANG has acted swiftly to nip a growing controversy over the Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Networth (SALN) of public officials.

The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) had asked Malacañang for the SALNs of Cabinet members. The SALNs were duly released but some parts had been blocked out by pentel pen – redacted or edited – such as the acquisition costs, descriptions, and other details of properties held by the Cabinet members.

It appears that some official in the Malacañang Records Section or the Presidential Communications Office had blacked out the data, in line, purportedly, with the Data Privacy Law. The PCIJ counted 167 blacked-out items in 29 SALNs it had received.

Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV filed a resolution calling on the Senate to look into the issue. Last Tuesday, the Senate, in plenary session, referred the matter to the Blue Ribbon Committee and the Civil Service Committee. Before the day was over, however, Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella assured that there would be full public disclosure of the assets of Cabinet members. “If you check again, they will give you the full,” he told the PCIJ.

Deputy Commissioner Ivy Patdu of the National Privacy Commission said the wealth data of a public servant should not be blacked out in SALNs released to media. Some data may properly be withheld, such as home addresses and the names of minor children, but SALNs are “not sensitive personal information.” They are data actually required by law to be produced, she said.

Before Malacañang’s swift action overturning the previous action of blacking out portions of Cabinet members’ SALNs, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon called for a review of the SALN law to clarify any possible conflict with the Data Privacy Law. This may no longer be necessary with the National Privacy Commission’s clarification and Malacañang’s quick action.

Congress, however, may well heed President Duterte’s appeal when he issued on July 23, 2016, the second Executive Order of his new administration mandating the full disclosure by all Executive offices. He said then his executive order could cover only the Executive branch of the government. Congress would have to enact a law covering the entire government, including the Legislature and the Judiciary.

Over a year has passed since that executive order. Congress should now find the time to enact the law suggested by President Duterte to make Freedom of Information a reality in the entire Philippine government.