KASAMA Vol. 14 No. 3 /July-August-September 2000 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network
Disclosure is the Main Issue
The background for the article "The State of the President's Finances: Can Estrada Explain His Wealth" from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) was based on two key public records: (1) statements of assets filed by Estrada from 1985 to 1999 and obtained from the Office of the Ombudsman; and (2) incorporation papers obtained from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) of 66 companies in which Estrada and his various families were listed as shareholders. Financial statements, general information sheets and stockholders' meetings reports of these companies, when available, were also obtained from the SEC.
PCIJ then got the corporate records of each company on the list. As the Philippine SEC only allows a person to access three corporate records in a day, the research took four months to complete using the same information channels available to the ordinary citizen. No press, or any other connections, were used to speed up the process.
The PCIJ writes, "The main issue here is disclosure. The President has not made a full accounting of what he and his families own. Neither did he fully comply with R.A. 6713, which requires officials to declare ALL business interests and financial connections. It's true that the law mandates disclosure only of assets of officials, their spouses and children below 18, not those of their mistresses and illegitimate children. But the fact that President Estrada, when he took his oath of office promised, 'Walang kamag-anak, walang kaibigan' (No relatives, no friends), he owes it to the people to explain why his families are living in a style that his declared income and assets cannot explain."
Controversy has arisen amongst the Philippine media because the story was circulated via e-mail when the main-stream dailies did not take it up. Editors, columnists, and professors of journalism realising there was public interest in the story began expounding their positions. Freedom of information, journalistic ethics, the timing of the piece to coincide with President Estrada's State of the Nation Address at the opening of Congress, and even the right of the President to have a 'private' life are major points of commentary. At a recent forum sponsored by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, Sheila Coronel, PCIJ's executive director, said, "The space for critical journalism is getting narrower. Editors are wary about using stories on the President. They weren't as careful as during the terms of Presidents Aquino and Ramos… There is self-censorship on the part of the media as far as the President is concerned."
In a country proud of its vibrant, independent and opinionated media rescued from dictatorship, freedom of information should be a subject close to the heart of the body politic.
You can view the whole of "The State of the President's Finances" as well as more investigative reports on the Estrada administration, and other current Philippine issues, by visiting the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism web site at http://www.pcij.org
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