Reforming the reformers

Reforming the reformers

I watched the “Godfather” movie — for the umpteenth time — last week and loved every scene just like when I saw it the first time 42 years ago. Yes, forty-two years and the movie is still popular – indeed, very popular — and the No. 1 movie of all time. It had brought criminal enterprise and the violence and corruption that it brews into a level of acceptability – and even respectability — in people’s lives.

In the same year the “Godfather” made its debut in the movies, another “Godfather” emerged from the political doldrums of the early years of an independent Philippines. On September 21, 1971, in a stroke of madness, then President Ferdinand E. Marcos signed Proclamation No. 1081, the declaration of martial law.
Fifteen years later, the EDSA People Power revolution ousted Marcos and brought Cory Aquino to power. She presided over a revolutionary government, rewriting the constitution in the process. Known as the 1987 Constitution – often called Cory’s Constitution — it was supposed to dismantle and reform the corrupt system of government that Marcos left behind.

Anti-corruption provisions were added to the constitution; however, not all of them were self-executing, such as those found in Article II, the Declaration of Principles and State Policies. Most of them are general principles that require a supplementary or enabling legislation to make them executory. Without the enabling laws, these constitutional provisions are hollow and useless.

Fighting corruption

Twenty-seven years later, Cory’s son Benigno “P-Noy” Aquino III, who became president in 2010, is still struggling to fulfill his promise of change, “Pagbabago.” He has been in office for almost four years, yet things seem like they hadn’t changed at all. His campaign slogan, “Walang korap, walang mahirap” (No corruption, no poverty), which excited a lot of people during the presidential election, is now the most despised cliché in Philippine politics. Corruption in government continues with impunity and people are mired in abject poverty and misery.

The famous French journalist and novelist Alphonse Karr once said in 1839, “The more things change, the more they are the same.” This epigram seems to fit well into P-Noy’s “Pagbabago.” And no matter how much P-Noy tries, if he had tried at all, the government is so corrupt that he has to go — beyond demagoguery — to hell and slay the devil himself. Then and only then can he pierce the firewall that protects the corrupt, many of who are members of his inner circle including his KKK cronies – Kakampi, Kaklase, Kabarilan (party mates, classmates, and shooting buddies) — whose loyalty to him is betrayed by their corrupt activities for personal aggrandizement.

Institutionalized corruption

In my article, “Institutionalized corruption” (November 21, 2012), I wrote: “In many countries, like the United States, people with ill-gotten wealth deposit their money in banks in Switzerland or the Cayman Islands, where bank secrecy laws protect the identity of depositors. But in the Philippines, a corrupt official, a drug lord or a jueteng operator doesn’t need to go abroad to hide their dirty money. Yep, they can go straight to their local bank and open a foreign currency deposit account and nobody can see it, not even government investigators.

“Known as ‘Foreign Currency Deposit Act of the Philippines,’ Republic Act (RA) 6426 was signed into law by then President Ferdinand E. Marcos in 1974 during the martial law era. The law states that any information can only be disclosed ‘upon written permission of the depositor.’ Many believe that it was enacted for the purpose of hiding the ill-gotten wealth of Marcos and his cronies.

“But RA 6426 survived when the people power revolution toppled the Marcos dictatorship. Oddly, it remains in the books to this day. Perhaps, the lawmakers find it useful.

“After Corona was impeached and removed from office, there was a move by a few lawmakers to amend or repeal RA 6426. But P-Noy didn’t warm up to the idea and it ended up in limbo, never to see the light of day again.”

Freedom of Information

But instead of reforming the law, P-Noy chose to run his administration with shallow slogans. He prods his underlings to walk a straight path –“Daang matuwid” – in the exercise of their responsibilities. But many of them have chosen to take a path that runs counter to P-Noy’s objectives. To make matters worse, P-Noy disregarded allegations of impropriety against his appointees. And without looking at the facts, he absolved them of any wrongdoing, saying that they’re “presumed innocent until proven guilty.” But Mr. President, how can anyone prove their guilt when you’d dismiss these allegations without investigating them?
But even if investigations were done, they might not produce evidence to prosecute erring public officials because of the secrecy lid on information, which can be pried open with the passage the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill.

P-Noy knows too well that the notion of FOI was embodied in Section 24, Article II of Cory’s Constitution, to wit: “The State recognizes the vital role of communication and information in nation-building.” The framers of the constitution must have realized that an FOI law is indispensible to building a nation of laws; thus, ensuring transparency and accountability in government.

But P-Noy believes that he doesn’t need an FOI law to govern. His spinmeisters defend his position saying that P-Noy is honest and transparent; therefore, there is no need for FOI. I agree that P-Noy is inherently an honest person. However, how can he claim transparency when he refuses public access to government information? If he has nothing to hide, what is there to fear?

The next Godfather

And how about the next president after him? There is no guarantee that P-Noy’s successor would be as honest and transparent as him. And looking at the present crop of presidentiables, in my opinion there is no one that is untainted by allegations of corruption. And who knows, the next “Godfather” might just be a vote away.

If P-Noy were really serious about dismantling institutionalized corruption, there are a few things that he could do: (1) Pass the FOI bill; (2) Remove the secrecy lid on RA 6426; (3) Comply fully with international anti-money laundering law requirements; (4) pass the anti-dynasty bill; and (5) decriminalize libel. It’s a tall order, but if P-Noy wants to stand tall and leave a legacy, then no order is too tall that he couldn’t achieve.

At the end of the day, instituting reforms in government should – nay, must! – begin with reforming the reformers and then reform the law. And don’t forget to always start at the top.