Despite Duterte Freedom of Information EO: Access to information narrows during pandemic

Screengrab from PCIJ website.

CHEERS to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) for looking into how access to government-held information has become more difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Karol Ilagan’s “Quarantine Curbs Access to Information” found that both national and local government agencies have either delayed responding to or denied requests for such COVID-related information about government spending and financial assistance.

Only one out of 10 such requests filed before the government’s eFOI portal from March 13 to May 27 has been granted. Out of over a thousand requests for information from journalists and other citizens, about half, Ilagan found, are still being processed, with a third outrightly denied.

Interestingly, the denied requests were for information on COVID-19 spending and the problematic implementation of the Social Amelioration Program (SAP). At least PHP 500 billion, Ilagan noted, has been allocated to address the impact of the pandemic on the population, many of whom have lost their jobs and require assistance.

Executive Order No. 2 was hyped by the newly inaugurated Duterte administration as a landmark achievement, although Fidel Ramos had done the same thing during his presidency, ordering agencies in the executive branch to make readily available the information these held to the media and to the public. Duterte also added to the mandate of Republic Act 6713, the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Government Officials and Employees – to respond to requests for information within 15 days. Clearly none of these have been observed to the detriment of the public need for information , especially in times of crisis. 

Manpower problems due to the quarantine surely affected the efficiency of this service. However, even when working from home, those assigned to this task could have found ways around these difficulties –and did not. No apologies were forthcoming either.  As it turned out, the eFOI portal was simply put, not a priority.

The PCIJ report is specially meaningful given the vast amounts that have been set aside by both the national and local governments to address the economic and social impact of the pandemic. Media should be checking out how well these funds have been used to protect and improve the capacity of medical frontliners and the national health system, as well as to come to the aid of those displaced by the lockdown.

Journalists are specially called upon during crises such as the present to closely monitor how well the government is attending to the different needs, both physical and economic. The PCIJ report could not have come at a better time than today, when limiting information access through various ways— red baiting journalists, banning them from coverage, shutting down media giant ABS-CBN among others— has become the administration’s major means of controlling  the public mind.