BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

DOF Gag Order

Below is my article for the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility on the controversial gag order issued by Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima:
DOF gag order 
A memo forbidding Finance officials from speaking to the media demonstrates how urgent the passage of the FOI bill is
By Iris C. Gonzales
FINANCE SECRETARY Cesar Purisima has issued a memo forbidding officials of the Department of Finance (DOF) from speaking to the press on matters not related to their duties as fiscal authorities.
The memo was dated July 19 and released to the media on July 23.
Dubbed as a gag order by some members of the press covering the Finance department, the memo was issued to “ensure that the DOF’s policy pronouncements are clearly communicated to the public.”
“Officials are advised not to comment on issues that go beyond their scope of authority. If they do so, the media (are) advised that said official does not reflect the position of the Department and such comments are made on their own personal capacity,” Purisima said in the order.
He listed the Finance officials covered by the order as follows:
  • On all matters pertaining to the Domestic Finance Group – Undersecretary Jeremias N. Paul, Jr. and Assistant Secretary Ma. Teresa S. Habitan;
  • On all matters pertaining to the Revenue Operations and Legal Affairs Group – Undersecretary Carlo A. Carag;
  • On all matters pertaining to the International Finance Group – Undersecretary Rosalia V. De Leon;
  • On all matters pertaining to the Corporate Affairs Group and Privatization Group – Undersecretary John Philip P. Sevilla;
  • On all matters pertaining to the Policy Development and Management Services Group – Undersecretary Gil S. Beltran.
Not surprisingly, Finance reporters found the memorandum out of order, and some beat reporters wrote about it.
BusinessMirror reporter VG Cabuag, in a July 24 article, quoted an unnamed source in the department as saying that since Purisima took over as Finance chief in 2010, “there has been oral instruction that bars other officials from making statements to the media, especially on the state of the Philippine economy, among others, but this was the first time that such order was formalized.”
PPP: The Trigger Point
Several days before Purisima issued the memorandum, beat reporters wrote a story on the potential contribution of the government’s public-private partnership (PPP) infrastructure projects on economic growth.
The story, which quoted Finance Undersecretary Beltran, focused on what the PPP could have contributed to the economy had the program taken off last year as the Aquino administration promised.
This writer was among those who wrote the story, which was published also in the July 19 issue of The Philippine Star:
“The Philippine economy could grow by an additional two percentage points this year if the government is able to bid out all eight infrastructure projects under its PPP program,” a Finance official said.
Given these estimates Finance Undersecretary Gil Beltran said the Philippine economy has the potential to grow by seven to eight percent this year from the official target range of five percent to six percent if the PPP projects are rolled out as planned.
However, Beltran noted that state spending has been improving.
At the same time, he said that spending would improve further if the PPP projects planned for the year would be bid out.”

No gag order
In a dialogue with reporters after a July 26 press conference, Purisima denied that he meant to gag Finance officials.
“It’s not a gag order,” he said.
He said the memo was issued merely to make sure that the DOF official being interviewed by the press knows what he or she is talking about.
He also said the order was necessary so that Finance officials who talk to the press do not discuss policy matters outside their areas.
“You have to have some discipline,” he said, referring to officials who discuss with Finance reporters issues outside their expertise.
However, what Purisima failed to note was that the discussions on the PPP including its contributions to the economy are not outside the scope of the Finance department.
In fact, in November 2010, it was Purisima himself, together with other government economic managers, who led the launch of the PPP program in a two-day conference at the posh Marriot Hotel in Pasay.
At the time, Purisima hailed the event as a success, saying that a lot of investors had already expressed interest in the various projects in the pipeline.
“We’re very excited. There has been a lot of firm interest among investors,” Purisima said then.
In fact, he also announced that year that the PPP Program can be implemented in about a year’s time or within 2011.
However, until today, only one of the 10 originally proposed projects have been bid out. The rest are still awaiting approval.
The sole PPP project awarded was the P1.956-billion Daang Hari-South Luzon Expressway Road Project. This was awarded to the Ayala Corporation.
The FOI bill
Purisima’s memorandum order comes at a time when the Aquino administration has been criticized for its failure to prioritize the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill.
President Benigno Aquino III, who delivered his third State of the Nation Address (SONA) on July 23, was widely criticized for not even mentioning the bill.
It cannot be denied that as head of the government’s economic team, Purisima reflects the Aquino administration’s attitude to media access to information and to dealing with the press in general.
On July 26, National Union of Journalists of the Philippines chairman Nestor Burgos Jr. said that without the passage of the measure, the Aquino administration’s supposed advocacy for transparency and accountability would not be comprehensive and sufficient.
The bill seeks to allow citizens to access to information including government documents upon formal request.
President Aquino himself promised to press for the enactment of the FOI bill, saying that this was a strategic pillar of his “daang matuwid” platform of good governance and accountability.
But Purisima’s policy is clearly the opposite of transparency and accountability.
Indeed, the irony is stark and telling. If the chief economic manager’s move is an indication of what’s in store for the press under this administration, it’s likely that there won’t be an FOI Law during its watch.
Iris C. Gonzales has been covering public finance for The Philippine Star since 2008. She was awarded Finance Reporter of the Year for 2010 by the Economic Journalists Association of the Philppines. She also writes about development of the Philippines on her blog,