The FOI watch

HE DIDN’T mention it in his fifth State of the Nation Address, but President Benigno Aquino III has included the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill in his list of 26 priority bills he has forwarded to Congress. The version of the FOI bill the list refers to is presumably the bill put together by the Malacañang Technical Working Group and the Right to Know. Right Now! Coalition (R2KRN) of NGOs and journalists and media groups.

This version of an FOI bill is generally acceptable to the coalition, says convenor Nepomuceno Malaluan, despite such additions to the list of government-held information that may not be accessed as information involving national security (in the Philippine experience, a phrase that has tended to be defined broadly and which can be used to apply to a host of government-held information) and inputs into the making of public policy prior to the policy’s adoption. Some groups have also protested the absence of a “sunshine clause” that would automatically declassify after a number of years information to which the public has been previously denied access. In its place is a provision that gives the President of the Philippines the prerogative to declassify such information.

Assuming that this version is the best that one can hope for under the circumstances, there is still the distinct possibility that it will not be the final version that will be passed—if it does pass—once it has gone through the legislative mill. Over a dozen other versions of an FOI bill, among them one that includes a Right of Reply (ROR) rider and another with a non-retroactivity provision that would make only government-held information after the passage of the bill accessible to citizens, have been filed in the House of Representatives. The sponsors of these and other versions, in the name of reconciling all the bills, are likely to demand the inclusion in the final bill of their main concerns.

The inclusion of an ROR provision would be especially problematic. An ROR provision would force the media to publish “replies” even if they have reported all sides in a controversy, and would undermine the media prerogative to decide what to publish. It would be a disguised assault on press freedom. But even more dangerous would be the inclusion of a non-retroactivity provision. Such a clause would in effect be a blanket prohibition from public access of ALL information on past administrations including the present one. To the skeptical, Mr. Aquino’s refusal to even mention the FOI in all his SONAS, and his sudden and late inclusion of it among his priority bills suggests a ploy to have an FOI bill that would contain a non-retroactivity provision pass only during the final days of his term for which the administration would take the credit, but which would keep all information about it from public access.

The FOI coalition has alerted its members and the public to the possibility of the bill’s being so amended that it would make public access to information even more difficult. But only so far can coalition and public militancy prevent the bill’s being so mangled it would serve the opposite aim of making citizen access to information easier and a matter of course. Once the bill reaches the bicameral committee, only the congressmen and senator members can intervene. But as we saw in the case of the 2012 Cybercrime Prevention Act, even those committee members who later opposed the Act did not intervene when it was most needed.

Access to information is a fundamental human right and is specially crucial in the democratization process. Monitoring and holding government to account is impossible without reliable information. In the Philippine context, minimizing corruption, stopping the plunder of public resources, and putting the people’s taxes into providing the social services they need, and helping create the circumstances that would improve the quality of life, are aims impossible to achieve without information on what government is doing.

The power of information not only to describe and interpret the world but even to change it, and the fear that an informed people will use information for these purposes, are at the heart of most politicians’ opposition to an authentic FOI law that will truly empower the citizenry rather than keep them ignorant of government policies, acts and processes.

The paradox in the Philippines is that it is the very dynasts and bureaucrats with a stake in secrecy and opaqueness upon whom the citizenry must depend to assure government transparency. Only through the most rigorous defense of the right to know can this paradox be resolved in favor of the majority. Prioritization or no, keeping watch on the progress of the FOI bill through Congress remains as urgent as ever.