The freedom of information (FOI) bill has passed committee deliberation at the House of Representatives. It will soon be debated in plenary session. This is good news for those who desire a truly transparent government.
The passage of the FOI bill has been a long and tortuous one. The bill was first introduced during the Eighth Congress and languished at committee level for years. The forces opposing it proved much stronger than those supporting it.
In 2010, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino promised an FOI law. That did not happen. The former president failed to even certify the bill as urgent. For all its claims about providing clean government, the previous administration did not provide citizens with the essential tool to ensure that.
The prospects for an FOI act appear brighter under the Duterte administration. Among the first acts of President Duterte, upon assuming office, was to issue an executive order providing for freedom of information in all the agencies of the executive branch. That was a truly decisive move. He did not just talk about freedom of information, he ordered its observance in the branch of government he leads.
We just celebrated the 31st anniversary of the 1986 Edsa uprising. We are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Constitution that provides citizens the right to information from their government. It is an anomaly that no enabling law has been passed after three decades. The stranglehold of those who wish to conduct government outside the public view has been strong.
Since President Duterte issued an executive order providing for freedom of information in the executive branch, the Presidential Communications Operation Office (PCOO) has been busy informing stakeholders about the value of exercising this right. We have organized seminars and mounted a broad public information campaign.
For its part, various agencies of government have opened phone lines or websites available for their citizen-clients who want information. Freedom of information, after all, is most useful for citizens dealing with frontline public agencies. All public contracts are, as a matter of rule, posted on the agency websites. Should the demand for information increase, we might need to provide for a separate office to deal with information requests. At the moment, the PCOO finds itself as the office that delivers this function.
The FOI act, once passed, will make the same procedures, now in place at the executive branch, pertaining to the two other branches of government. All of government will be immensely more responsive to inquiries from citizens. Democratic ethics tells us that the people are sovereign. That can only be a substantial truth if the people are adequately informed about how their government performs.
The Duterte administration is not afraid of an informed citizenry. On the contrary, this administration thrives at the prospect of a fully informed people. This condition will further the administration’s goals of genuine people empowerment and the suppression of corruption in government. Citizens ought not to discharge their responsibilities as sovereign during elections only. They should be enabled to oversee their government’s performance on a daily basis. That is what freedom of information accomplishes.
Over the weekend, the nation commemorated the 31st anniversary of a peaceful uprising seeking to redeem our democracy. As it happens, the commemoration was filled with platitudes and worn-out generalities. The real goal of that uprising was the empowerment of the people. That empowerment happens only when the people are fully informed and best able to make judgments on the performance of those who rule on their behalf.
A freedom of information act will be a substantial step toward reaching the goals of a democratic uprising. Those who wish to destabilize the government should talk about the FOI instead.
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