Less than a week after his arrival from a US visit last month, President Benigno Aquino III ran into head winds of public demand to make good an election promise to legislate a Freedom of Information (FOI) bill as the backbone of a transparent and honest government.
Upon taking office on July 1, 2010, the new President, riding the wave of high public expectations for political reforms, pledged that he would make the enactment of the FOI bill a legislative priority in a Congress where a new majority of administration allies in the House of Representatives was set to take control.
More than a year later, on Oct. 1, Mr. Aquino told a conference of Southeast Asian business leaders in Manila that he was not ready to include the FOI bill on his list of priority measures, saying too much transparency may prove to be a drawback rather than a benefit for democracy.
He said he would certify to Congress the inclusion of the FOI bill in the priority agenda when concerned sectors have agreed on the limitations and coverage of such a law mandating transparency in governance.
“You know, having a Freedom of Information Act sounds so good and noble—there’s a tendency of getting information and not really utilizing it for proper purposes,” he said during a question-and-answer forum.
The President used the forum as an occasion to turn the tables on the news media, with which he had become ultrasensitive to their criticism over his underperforming administration. He criticized the newspapers for presenting opinion as fact.
“There are so many people who will always look at the bottle half-empty, or sometimes the half-empty even becomes the quarter, quarter-full bottle,” he said.
The President pointed out that some advocates of transparency wanted Cabinet meetings recorded and immediately made available for the public to watch or listen to.
Mr. Aquino made an issue out of how the newspapers reported opinion as fact.
“And if I may just add, all you have to do is read our newspapers everyday. And I think you will agree that there is … nobody can state a fact exactly the same in all of these newspapers,” he said. “An opinion commenting on the fact is OK but an opinion masquerading as a fact does not do anyone any good.”
Clear minds can easily make out if they are reading opinions or factual reports.
What kind of a free newspaper does the President really want? The basic character of a free newspaper is that the news is presented differently in each paper. There is no such thing as uniformity in the presentation of news in the newspapers.
The only regime that seeks uniformity of information and interpretation of news is a totalitarian dictatorship, with a single mouthpiece echoing the party line—like Josef Goebbels was to Adolf Hitler.
Unlike the Nazi dictator, Mr. Aquino employs three to four spokespersons, each with a distinct message and version of the news, a medley of information that compounds the confusion of the public which is in need of illumination (a hopeless expectation) of the President’s mind—as to whether he wants to bring down a FOI bill or turn the Filipinos into a nation of sheep being fed a heavy dose of official propaganda much of which has been dedicated over the past year to damning an already discredited and out of power administration for its appalling record of corruption.
If there’s any key legislation that is likely to be the first on the casualty list of broken promises, it is no other than the FOI bill.
Mr. Aquino talks the language of the democrat, but his record in the first year of office indicates that there is little to show political will in bringing about a regime of freedom of information that would make it an effective instrument to combat corruption, to contrast the Aquino administration with the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo regime.
No clear stand
In a speech to the Open Government Partnership (OGP) forum in New York on Sept. 20, the President failed to make a firm and clear stand in his Philippine National Action presentation on the FOI bill pending before Congress during the last nine years.
Instead, Mr. Aquino disappointed the foreign audience with the presentation that “only spoke generally about the (importance) of information in democracies and the potential value of the OGP.”
Before his visit to the United States, the President had come under increasing criticism for his failure to live up to his campaign promise to give priority to the FOI bill. Human rights organizations said he was “long on promise and short on political will” when it came to the FOI bill.
The lack of political will was pronounced when Mr. Aquino failed to mention the FOI bill in his first State of the Nation Address in July. “The signal is clear, the President doesn’t want this bill,” said a member of Congress.
Civil society supporters of freedom of information were dismayed when the President failed to include the FOI bill among the 13 priority measures he recommended for endorsement by the Legislative Executive Development Advisory Council at a meeting in Malacañang last month.
Malacañang has come up with more excuses for sitting on the measure.
Mr. Aquino, according to one of the numerous presidential spokespersons (not exactly the brightest and most lucid), is concerned that the bureaucracy may not be ready to cope with the expected deluge of requests for public documents once the FOI bill is enacted.
The spokesperson also raised security concerns over the release of statements of assets, liabilities and net worth of government officials which would likely include information on their addresses and names of minor children.
There are profuse claims from the administration that the FOI bill is crucial to its fight against graft and corruption, but the issue is whether the government—and even Congress—is enthusiastic to push such a legislation.
Nothing will move in Congress unless the President acts to give the FOI bill more than lip service.
Malacañang is drafting a new version of the bill. Some quarters are suspicious.
Will the draft weaken the provisions to give the public more access to records of government transactions in line with constitutional guarantees, or will it water down the bill?
The President has a history of lack of clarity on what he really is up to.
The only sphere of governance where the Aquino administration has been obsessively focused on is the exposure of the corrupt deals of the previous regime—so his honesty would shine in contrast without doing much to deliver economic results.
Maybe, freedom of information is too abstract a concept to make it relevant to our daily lives.