Disgusted with pols’ mansions? Take pix, send to this group

Disgusted with pols’ mansions? Take pix, send to this group
By Philip Tubeza
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines—Disgusted by a public official’s sprawling mansion or bulky SUV that you think is ill-gotten? Take a picture and send it to these guys.

Anticorruption activists Tuesday launched the Philippine Public Transparency Reporting Project (PPTRP) and its website, aiming to build from the grassroots “a constituency for change” to battle “endemic” graft and corruption.

The PPTRP website—www.transparencyreporting.net, subtitled “Pera Natin ’To (This is our Money)!”—will feature pictures of alleged ill-gotten wealth. Plans are underway to make the Statements of Assets and Liabilities and Net Worth (SALNs) of government officials available online.

The first target of this “shame” drive? Politicians who put their names and pictures on signs announcing public projects.

“We want to shame people, shame politicians,” said Briton Alan Davis, the director of the project which is funded by the United States Agency for International Aid (USAID).

“We would like to see an end to politicians putting their own names and photos on publicly funded projects. I think it’s morally wrong for people to promote themselves on the back of public money,” Davis said.

“It’s wrong. Maybe it’s even corrupt. You’re basically using public money to advertise your own personal private gain, which is to get votes for the next election. And that is the definition of corruption,” he said.

Davis said the group would write “all the politicians and all the presidential candidates” with the question, “Do you think this is morally acceptable or morally wrong?”

“And we will publish their replies,” he said.

Davis also said the media should stop reporting that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo visited “her” projects somewhere in the country.

“They’re not her projects. They don’t belong to her. They belong to the people. The media will have to stop calling programs as somebody’s projects. That’s what we don’t like—the personification of public money,” he said.

The PPTRP is a two-year anticorruption and transparency reporting project that will work closely with journalists, civil servants and activists, the academe, and citizens nationwide to improve “understanding, engagement and action on public accountability and governance.”

Davis said the PPTRP website would post the SALNs of government officials to spur ordinary citizens to conduct their own “lifestyle checks.”

“We will put all SALNs online so that they would be accessible to all. We promise not to comment on them. We simply want to put them online so that people can use [the information] themselves and do lifestyle checks,” he said, adding:

“We don’t use the website as a tool to accuse people because that’s not fair. We will look at everything on its merits. The key thing is to get people to understand that they’re being watched and being monitored.”

Davis, who is married to a Filipino, is the chief for Asia of the international nongovernment organization Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

He joined the NGO in 1994 after working as a journalist and news editor, reporting from Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Burma (Myanmar).

He has also worked for the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development.

Public involvement

According to Davis, ordinary citizens may go to the car park of a public office “and actually take pictures of cars they think” are beyond the financial reach of civil servants.

“If there’s a Mercedes and Toyota Land Cruisers, send us the pictures. We will go to the [Land Transportation Office] and find out who owns those cars,” Davis said.

“We want to get the public involved in the monitoring, in the naming and in the shaming,” he said.

With USAID support, the PPTRP website will provide information and education to the public to promote a deeper understanding and better monitoring of public finances.

Too technical

“In terms of budget transparency in the Philippines, we always hear about corruption in tax administration, unaccountable expenditures, lump-sum appropriations, and often, these problems are seen as too technical for civil society or ordinary citizens to be involved with,” said Maria Rendon, acting chief of USAID’s Office of Economic Development and Governance.

“The project intends to spread awareness of the present issues in public finance and other facets of government so that people will understand and participate in the constituency for change,” she said.

Rendon said budget issues were “often ignored, probably because the consequences seem to be intangible and detached from day-to-day lives.”

“But as our good colleague, Emily Boncodin, would say, public finances reflect the bottom line of government priorities,” Rendon said, referring to the recently deceased and much admired former budget secretary.

“They determine the number of school buildings to be constructed, the quality of rural roads, the quality of health care and even the efficiency of elections,” she said.

Twilight zone

Also present at the project launch held at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City, was Solita Monsod, a former director of the National Economic and Development Authority who warned that the country was losing the war against corruption.

“The Philippines is in the twilight zone where laws, rules and regulations are ignored or broken, where lack of transparency is the rule rather than the exception,” Monsod said.

“On the macro level, we have been losing the battle on corruption or, at the least, we are not winning the battle as shown by indicators like the Global Corruption Barometer,” she said.

Monsod said it was “utter hogwash” that “corruption is endemic in the Philippines because we are a morally and culturally flawed people.”

“My counter-assertion is the plain and simple fact that the reason corruption is practiced so widely in this country is not because we are flawed but because we are rational. We engage in corrupt practice because it pays. The extra benefits far outweigh the extra costs to the practitioner,” she said.

Court of public opinion

Even the justices of the Supreme Court should make their SALNs public to improve transparency in government, Davis said.

If not, he said, the PPTRP would use “the court of public opinion” to “shame in a respectful way” the tribunal into agreeing to release the SALNs of its members.

“We can write to them. We’re going to publish our letter and … their reply. We’re going to say, ‘Why do you have that policy? Who decided that?’” Davis said.

He pointed out that the filing of the SALN was instituted so that government officials would “be accountable to the public.”

The 1987 Constitution mandates government officials to file, under oath, their SALNs. It adds that for the President, Vice President, the Cabinet, Congress, and the Supreme Court, their SALNs should be “disclosed to the public in a manner provided by law.”

Junk SC resolution

But in an en banc resolution on Sept. 22, 1992, the high court stopped the practice of releasing the justices’ SALNs to the public. It would later use this resolution to deny requests from the media for copies of the justices’ SALNs.

“If they refuse to send [their SALNs], we will use public shame. [We will] not necessarily file public cases because that goes to [court] and it could get lost for years and years. We’ll use the court of public opinion,” Davis said.

Monsod also called on the high court to junk its policy of keeping the SALNs of its members secret.

“That’s nonsense. The whole reason for [the SALN] is to make transparent their wealth. The Constitution calls for it,” Monsod said.

Karen Ang

A plebeian who is trying to make small changes in this world.