THERE IS something quite disconcerting about new Ombudsman Samuel Martires so that I am compelled to change course if only for this time in this column. Thus, the following related email I got from Mary Grace Go, news editor of Rappler whom I am quoting verbatim as follows (quotes removed for convenience):
I shared with you last week that officials who can’t explain their misuse of public funds seem to be the only ones who don’t appreciate journalists reporting on corruption. We report the findings of state auditors, the probes handled by the graft investigators, the cases filed with the Sandiganbayan, and they think we’re the bad guys.
Don’t look now, but less than a week after that Wednesday “Huddle” we had, those who want to keep taxpayers ignorant of how government officials spend our hard-earned money have gotten themselves one big time ally: newly sworn-in Ombudsman Samuel Martires.
On his first day in office, President Duterte’s handpicked graft buster (should I put that in quotes?) announced: the Office of the Ombudsman would make it difficult for journalists to get information on complaints at every phase of the investigation – from filing to resolution.
In case Ombudsman staff or the complainants are thinking of leaking documents or talking to reporters, Martires said they are “warned.”
(I wonder what would be the consequences. On his first day in office last Monday, August 6, he didn’t stand up against an unconstitutional order by Malacañang. He said he had no choice but to implement the Palace order to dismiss Overall Deputy Ombudsman Arthur Carandang, who headed the probe into President Rodrigo Duterte’s unexplained wealth.)
In comparison, this was how things were done during the time of Martires’ predecessor, Conchita Carpio Morales: reporters are allowed to witness the filing of complaints, speak to the complainants, and get copies of the documents attached to the complaints. Findings of the field investigators are either publicized or could be requested by the media. Resolutions – whether cases would be fi led or complaints were dismissed – were announced both to reporters and on the website of the Ombudsman. Reporters would report on as many cases as their time and resources could cover.
Now, this is how Martires’ policy will translate for journalists:
Most of us will be blind on complaints being filed. If they get wind of it, our facts might be limited to just one side of the story, to what will be provided by complainants who are willing to speak or by the subjects of the complaints who want to preempt or spin the story.
To get hold of documents and verify whatever leads we get, we would need more hours, even days or weeks, on a single complaint. The last time we checked, the Ombudsman during Morales’ time, with a still-limited number of investigators and prosecutors, handled thousands of complaints every year.
This is like saying, if we want journalists to look into allegations of corruption against our public officials, or if we want to check whether government graft investigators are not bungling the cases against these officials, then each newsroom has to have a team dedicated to just shadowing the Ombudsman’s office. There are close to 360,000 elected officials and 1.4 million government employees, by the way.
And this isn’t all.
Before the end of his first day in office, he also announced that complaints where fact finding has taken more than a year would be automatically dismissed. We understand there is a need for speedy disposition of cases, but the way the new Ombudsman wants to do this is like decluttering a house without the Marie Kondo principle of holding an item close to you and asking: does this give joy to my heart?
I mean, you don’t assess the gravity of a case by just looking at a calendar and say, hey, this has been here since a year ago, dismiss! Do you realize how much time it took to build a case on the multi-billion-peso pork barrel scam that sent 3 senators to jail? Yet, Martires said this rule would apply even in cases where his own investigators would be able to justify why the fact finding took long or even if the probe is already about to be completed.
A newsroom unit dedicated to investigating graft and corruption? Believe me, that would be journalism heaven to any outfit with limited manpower and resources (which almost all media outfits are).
At Rappler, we crowdsource funds for thematic reportage, but I go back to a few paragraphs earlier: there are millions of government officials and workers in 81 provinces, 145 cities, 1,489 municipalities, and 42,044 barangays to investigate. The media industry has, what, a few hundred reporters? (Please share ideas how else we can do this.)
President Duterte issued an executive order on freedom of information two years ago, requiring full disclosure of information from all executive offices. It’s still less powerful than a law, which our distracted congressmen have yet to approve, but nonetheless a policy that anybody in the business of rooting out corruption in government should welcome.
Yet, on Day 1, Ombudsman Samuel Martires didn’t make efforts to hide his disdain for the public’s right to know, even accusing the media’s coverage of corruption cases is nothing but driven business. That, at least, is transparency on his part, as the logic of your sari-sari store tambay would probably go.
(Oh, wait, there are no more tambays – they are being hauled to jail by the thousands.)