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Confidence level on bank secrecy law

For what may be the nth time, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) is asking Congress to amend the country’s bank secrecy law to put it on a par with international standards.

When President Duterte delivered his first State of the Nation Address in 2016, he vowed to work on the relaxation of that law, which is considered one of the strictest in the world.

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Sadly, the bills filed in Congress to make that promise a reality are stuck at the committee level and there is no sign they would go to the plenary any time soon.

Last week, BSP Governor Benjamin Diokno said he would ask the President to certify as urgent the amendment of the bank secrecy law to enable the BSP to look into bank deposits of persons suspected to be engaged in the commission of fraud, serious irregularity or unlawful activity.

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Corollary to that grant of authority, Diokno wants banks that hold deposits of the persons investigated to be immune from suits that may be filed in connection with the probe.

The fact that the amendatory bills have hardly moved in the legislative mill despite their sponsorship by lawmakers allied with the President’s party should motivate Diokno into taking a close look at them to find out why they have not found favor with the lawmakers.

The same reasons may apply to his proposed amendments. Although compliance with international standards may justify the relaxation of bank secrecy, there are factors or circumstances in the country’s social or political milieu that may not make it advisable to break the confidentiality of bank deposits in the manner it is done in other countries.

What may work in the banking system of, say, Australia, does not automatically mean it would have the same effect in the Philippines. As the saying goes, different strokes for different folks.

Judging from the comments earlier made on the bills filed to lift bank secrecy, the principal concern seems to be the potential for abuse or misuse of the power to examine bank deposits and order their freezing, or not allowing any withdrawals until the probe on them is over and done with.

That authority can, for instance, be used by a political party in power to cripple financially its political opponents during the campaign period, or send a veiled message to the latter’s supporters that they could find themselves in serious trouble for their political beliefs.

That situation is not far-fetched from happening. There were several incidents in the past when laws were “weaponized” by a sitting administration against the people it considered as a threat to its continued stay in power.

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And this malpractice had been justified under the principle of presumption of regularity of official functions. What a convenient excuse!

While it is true that all grants of power are susceptible to abuse or misuse, the same can be minimized, if not eliminated, by clearly defining the parameters for the exercise of that power and providing a mechanism for speedy relief if it is not exercised in the manner it was envisioned.

To illustrate, take a look at the acts that would reportedly trigger the examination of a bank deposit: commission of fraud, serious irregularity or unlawful activity. They practically cover every crime a person can commit, including jaywalking, trespassing and pissing on a perimeter wall.

The proposed amendments should state with particularity the crimes that would warrant the BSP’s depriving a depositor of his or her constitutional right to privacy and enjoyment of his or her properties.

A law enforcement act as serious as examining and freezing a bank deposit should be done only for acts that clearly match the gravity of its predicate offense.

The certification of urgency that Diokno wants the President to issue on the proposed amendments is, however, no assurance that Congress would approve them hook, line and sinker.

The BSP has to prove to the lawmakers that the amendments are in the country’s best interests and that his office can be trusted to implement them equitably. INQFor comments, please send your email to [email protected]

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