Approve the Freedom of Information Act

As a historian, I hope that President Aquino’s third State of the Nation Address will contain a reference to the Freedom of Information Act that has been pending in Congress for a long time. Access to public records is not just the concern of the historian but also a means to achieve transparency and public accountability. The only problem I see here is that potentially incriminating documents will be harder to find because they will not be made or destroyed soon after these are read, very much like the spool of tape that self-destructs at the opening of each episode of the original “Mission Impossible.”

Unknown to many is that I met a crossroads in my career in the 1990s. I had a choice to shift to archeology and prehistoric Philippines or move to more contemporary events and do the Marcos years. The first option was quickly discarded when I realized that archeologists had to take all the natural science subjects I evaded in college. Then there was the physical exertion of doing field work, unlike library or archival research on the Marcos period that could be conducted in quiet air-conditioned comfort.

My interest in Ferdinand Marcos began when I dipped into the National Security Archive in Cornell University. It was a small cabinet of microfiche containing once-classified US State Department documents on Marcos that antedates Wikileaks. These papers details Marcos from the eyes of Washington and is complete from the time he is pinpointed by the US Embassy in Manila as a rising congressman all the way to his last days in exile in Hawaii. None of the present works on the period has made full use of this archive, whose index alone fills three volumes as thick as the New York telephone directory.

Browsing at random, I read dispatches from the US Embassy in Manila—a mine of raw information from Marcos’ position on national topics to the length of his golf clubs. How were all these details compiled? They had recourse to the US Freedom of Information Act.

Before the US State Department publicly released what it deemed confidential, some official deleted “sensitive” parts with black ink. That would have made the document useless except that the State Department did not realize that the same document would be requested a second or third time months later. Since a copy of the first “censored” document was not filed, when another State Department employee read and decided on what he deemed “sensitive,” he deleted differently. Thus, it was possible to reconstruct the full document despite the censorship.

I had asked to interview major players in the Marcos years, but other concerns got in the way and they slowly passed on, like Jaime Cardinal Sin, Salvador Laurel, and Blas Ople. Before her illness and hospitalization, Cory Aquino texted twice to reiterate her invitation for a personal tour of the Aquino Museum in Tarlac. That, too, was a wasted opportunity. I always put off things for another day, and now I have nothing left but my regrets. Had I started data gathering and interviewing in the 1990s, I would be writing less now about the 19th century. I would have been able to trace and perhaps copy vital primary sources.

Ninoy Aquino’s reflective prison diary remains unpublished to this day, and he wrote a lot in prison. The late Fr. Bernando Ma. Perez, OSB, former rector of San Beda College, narrated how he was called to Malacañang during the most serious of coup attempts against Corazon Aquino’s administration. Brought to one of the buildings in the Palace compound where the President was secured in a small room with thick walls, where mattresses taken off beds were propped against the windows, Father Perez saw the President wearing a track suit and sneakers. She asked for his prayers and bowed her head to receive a blessing. What she did not know was that Father Perez gave her the blessing and absolution reserved for those on the threshold of death.

Cory then handed him a bag containing her most precious possessions, something too heavy to carry around in flight. Father Perez took the bag back to San Beda, stuffed it in his cabinet, and forgot all about it until the President called for him again weeks later. When he returned the bag to Cory, he told her: “I did not open it. Can you tell me what’s inside?” Cory said: “Ninoy’s diaries.”

Where are these today? When will these be made available to historians? To make things more interesting, we also know that Marcos likewise kept a diary. In the United States, presidential libraries are put up. Where do the state papers of Philippine presidents go after their term?

I used to think that doing the late-19th-century Philippines was a great challenge because the period seems so far away from our times, but it seems that even doing a period within my living memory can be just as challenging. Aside from younger historians to do the work, we also need more primary sources. As history is written and rewritten by different historians, the material for their narratives depend on memories set out on paper. It reminds me of the late Teodoro Agoncillo, who often said: “No document, no history.” Approving the Philippine Freedom of Information Act is the first step in the right direction.

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