Saturday, May 25, 2019

Cabaero: Hope, doubt in FOI guarantee

PRESIDENTIAL candidates during the campaign period were quick to dish out promises to grant citizens the freedom to access information saying they would do their best to have that guarantee.

In the second of three presidential debates held during the campaign, the four contenders who were present were asked about their position on the freedom of information (FOI) bill. Rodrigo Duterte, candidate and now presumptive president, said then that he would use his executive powers to ensure the people have such freedom. Sen. Grace Poe, Vice President Jejomar Binay and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas gave versions of the same line, emphasizing that Congress couldn’t get its act together.

Duterte, now the presumptive president until the Commission on Election proclaims him the winner and president-elect, said last week he would start with the executive department in implementing the FOI. Executive offices will be required to be transparent and give out information requested by the public. He will not go by the Congress route, because FOI bills introduced in the 14th to the present 16th Congress failed to pass. A total of nine years of failed attempts.

It died in the 14th Congress during the term of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. A second attempt died in the 15th Congress despite the campaign promises of President Benigno Aquino III. The bill is breathing its last in these remaining days of the 16th Congress.

The failure to pass the bill rests largely on members of the House of Representatives who want a right-to-reply provision in the FOI to legally require media to give subjects in news reports equal exposure to reply. The Senate passed its versions of the bill in the past; it was House inaction that was most obvious.

The proposed law was meant to do away with decades of control over the flow of information from the government to the people. It seeks to mandate public access to information about government transactions.

While the Constitution upholds the right of the people to information on matters of public concern, there are several obstacles to getting such data. Requests for information have been met with inaction, excuses, referrals, or outright rejection.

During President Arroyo’s term, an executive directive was issued controlling access to public data. The order required officials to clear with her sensitive public statements or appearances before investigative bodies at the height of controversial government transactions and corruption allegations against her administration.

This is an example of how an executive order could effectively amend the constitutional provision on full public disclosure.

While Duterte’s statement of rushing the guarantee of access to public information is welcome and brings hope to anti-corruption advocates, there is no assurance that right would not be changed or withdrawn. That guarantee of FOI could easily be taken back, also by executive order.

The benefit of having a law in force is it would take more than a signature in an executive directive to remove that freedom.

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