VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Duterte’s claim on Freedom of Information Act needs context

President Rodrigo Duterte claimed in his final State of the Nation Address (SONA) on July 26 that his 2016 order on freedom of information opened up to the public various types of government records and issuances.

This needs context.

STATEMENT

Within the first hour of Duterte’s almost three-hour report at the joint session of Congress, he said:

“To further promote transparency and accountability in government, we also issued the order on Freedom of Information [that] opens up the records, transactions, decisions and issuances of all government agencies.”

Source: PTV Philippines, WATCH: Pamana ng Pagbabago: President Rodrigo Roa Duterte's Final SONA, watch from 3:36:33 to 3:36:51, July 26, 2021

FACT

Despite Duterte’s issuance of Executive Order No. 2 on July 23, 2016, a range of documents and information pertaining to controversial topics remain inaccessible to the public. These include Duterte’s Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN), his state of health, and records about the war on illegal drugs.

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In September 2020, the Office of the Ombudsman issued new guidelines on public access to SALNs, a sworn document that details, among other items, the personal finances and properties of the filer.

The guidelines restricted access to the SALNs only to the filers or persons they “authorize,” field investigators of the Ombudsman, and those acting on an order of a court in relation to a pending case. The same rules also state that requests for a person’s SALN should be submitted to the concerned office of the SALN filer, such as the Office of the President (OP) for the president’s records. (See: VERA FILES FACT SHEET: What has changed in requesting SALN from the Ombudsman?)

Requests for Duterte’s SALNs have been repeatedly denied, or redirected to the OP, such as in the case of the request of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) for access to Duterte’s SALNs from 2018 to the present.

PCIJ regularly publishes “wealth check” stories on the country’s presidents, and even on the 2016 presidential bets Mar Roxas, Jejomar Binay, Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Grace Poe, and Duterte. It reported last month that Malacañang’s Records Office claimed to have no copy of Duterte’s SALNs from the years requested.

VERA Files Fact Check hit the same snag in 2019 when the Ombudsman told the media, including VERA Files, to direct their request to the OP. (VERA FILES FACT SHEET: Three things you must know about requesting SALNs from the Ombudsman)

Meanwhile, copies of the SALNs of Duterte’s Cabinet members released to the public were heavily redacted, according to a September 2017 PCIJ report.

The 1987 Constitution mandates all public officials and employees to submit a sworn SALN every year. Former presidents Corazon Aquino, Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and Benigno Aquino III have all made their SALNs available to the public in the years they held the post as the country’s chief executive, according to a PCIJ report.

On Duterte’s health records

The president’s health records are similarly concealed from the public despite a clamor for its release. Appeals to disclose his health condition gained traction in August 2020, especially after Duterte said in a televised speech that his Barrett’s esophagus condition was “nearing” stage one cancer. (See Duterte’s illnesses ‘all together’ considered ‘serious,’ says medical doctor)

Section 12, Article VII of the 1987 Constitution implores the executive department to inform the public of the president’s health condition in case of serious illness.

In September 2020, the Supreme Court denied with finality lawyer Dino De Leon’s petition for mandamus for the OP to publicly disclose Duterte’s medical records since taking office in July 2016. (See VERA FILES FACT SHEET: The deal with the president’s health)

A writ of mandamus is a petition to the high court to compel a government office, in this case the OP, to perform its duty. De Leon’s petition sought to compel the OP to disclose Duterte’s health records and urge the president to undergo “confirmatory” medical and psychological evaluation.

(See Palace denies VERA Files’ FOI request on Duterte’s health; official statement, medical records ‘not on file’)

On drug war records

Last May, Duterte, invoking national security concerns, said not all records pertaining to his war on drugs can be made public.

The Philippine National Police (PNP) submitted to the Department of Justice 61 drug war cases in which the PNP Internal Affairs Service found “administrative or criminal liability” of law enforcement officers. Official government records logged 6,147 deaths linked to drug war operations from July 1, 2016 to May 31, 2021.

On April 2, 2019, the Supreme Court denied the Office of the Solicitor General’s (OSG) appeal to affirm its refusal to completely grant access to drug war records for national security reasons.

The high court ruled that the records required from the OSG “do not obviously involve state secrets affecting national security.”

The magistrates ruled in 2018 that the OSG and all concerned offices must submit the following documents:

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In the 2019 ruling, the court reiterated its 2018 stance that it is “simply ridiculous to claim that these information and documents on police operations against drug pushers and users involve national security concerns.”


Sources

PTV Philippines, WATCH: Pamana ng Pagbabago: President Rodrigo Roa Duterte's Final SONA, July 26, 2021

Official Gazette of the Philippines, Executive Order No. 2, July 23, 2016

Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), PCIJ request for Duterte SALN runs into dead end – again, July 26, 2021

Philstar.com, Duterte: Not all 'drug war' records can be released due to national security issues, June 1, 2021

Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), SALNs to impeach CJ, other execs but Palace redacts Cabinet SALNs, Sept. 22, 2017

Office of the Ombudsman, Memorandum Circular No.1, Series of 2020, Sept. 1, 2020

Freedom of Information Portal, Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, Nov. 12, 2019

Freedom of Information Portal, Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) of President Rodrigo Duterte, Jan. 12, 2019

Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), The wealth of P-Noy, July 4, 2011

Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), Gloria gets richer fastest, beats Cory, Ramos, Erap, Aug. 9, 2009

Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), Wealth Check: MAR ROXAS, Liberal Party, May 6, 2016

Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), Wealth Check: JEJOMAR BINAY, May 6, 2016

Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), Wealth Check: MIRIAM DEFENSOR, May 6, 2016

Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), Wealth Check: GRACE POE, Galing at Puso, May 6, 2016

Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), Wealth Check: RODRIGO DUTERTE, May 6, 2016

Official Gazette of the Philippines, Section 17, Article XI., Accessed July 30, 2021

Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), Duterte’s SALNs secret; PCIJ makes public wealth disclosures of all presidents since Cory, Oct. 18, 2020

On Duterte’s health records

On drug war records


(Guided by the code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, VERA Files tracks the false claims, flip-flops, misleading statements of public officials and figures, and debunks them with factual evidence. Find out more about this initiative and our methodology.)

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Founded in March 2008, VERA Files is published by veteran Filipino journalists taking a deeper look into current Philippine issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”

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