Human Face

Push, pass the FOI Act now!

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Yesterday, August. 15, was the National Day for Freedom of Information (FOI). I don’t know how the day came to be declared such, but the why should be obvious. Below is a pooled editorial which the Right to Know Right Now media coalition hopes would be widely circulated, published, broadcast and discussed in blogs, radio and television talk shows, newspapers, forums, schools, etc. Let us all help spread the word so that FOI would become a reality in our everyday lives. A people in the dark are a people with no power. Is this what we want to be?

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In 1986 at Edsa, the first people power revolt ended 21 years of a government so dark and so opaque, and ushered in one of light and transparency. The strongman Ferdinand E. Marcos was vanquished and democracy icon Corazon C. Aquino came to power.

A year later, the 1987 Constitution enshrined state policies of full transparency and accountability in the conduct of all public officials and employees, and of full public disclosure of information vested with public interest. The Constitution upheld the people’s right to know and be informed about all policies, projects, and programs of government that involve use of taxpayers’ money.

It is now 2012, or over 26 years after Edsa. Filipinos today are the most exuberant in their exercise of the freedoms of speech, of the press, and of peaceable assembly for redress of just grievances. But one other inalienable freedom that the Constitution also guarantees—Freedom of Information—remains just a bill perpetually stuck in the legislative wringer over the last 14 years, hobbled by the discombobulating “concerns” of the executive, and mocked by restrictive administrative fiats of the judiciary, the House of Representatives, and even the Office of the Ombudsman.

The Freedom of Information Act long promised by the Constitution remains, to this day, just a promise. And from the 12th to the present 15th Congress, despite the dozens of bills filed and refiled, it seems like we always return to square one, marching but only in place, on the FOI Act.

The second Aquino administration of Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III was installed in June 2010 on major summons for the citizens and public officials to trek the “daang matuwid,” rid the nation of corruption, and alleviate poverty. From birth, it is an administration that seems naturally betrothed to pushing and passing the FOI Act. Two years and two months in office hence, the administration and its Liberal Party-led coalition in the House of Representatives have yet to do the job.

From various accounts of senior officials and pro-administration legislators, their less than vigorous interest to pass the FOI Act supposedly derives from a few reasons: 1) that some executive agencies have become more transparent anyway [and] are already uploading online some budget and public finance documents; 2) that the FOI Act seems largely an issue of the middle class and the media; 3) that the FOI Act might not get the numbers needed in the House, and with the May 2013 elections coming soon, might divide more than unite the political parties.

Online uploads of public documents are just half the transparency equation that the FOI Act must guarantee. The other, more important half of the equation that an FOI Act guarantees is the public disclosure of documents on request or on demand of citizens asserting their right to access information in government custody.

Citizens need to and must know how public officials exercise their powers and authorities, how they spend public funds, what contracts and agreements they sign and seal on our behalf, what policy issues bother them that must also bother us so we may participate in making decisions.

Citizens need to and must know what programs [have been put up] for the delivery of the most basic services, as well as how they can access with success and within reasonable time frames the most relevant public documents they need to secure and safeguard their most basic needs. Indeed, in the panoply of rights, the right to information is both the most supreme and the most fundamental as it is the bedrock of all our rights to education, property, livelihood, even life.

The right to information is our protection against government abuse, at the same time that it is our power to make government accountable.

But our right to information, as great and self-executing as it is under the 1987 Constitution, requires a complementing legislation to ensure its clear-cut, full and predictable operation. Twenty-six years and five presidents since, the FOI Act remains just a promise.

Over that long wait, the proposed measure has undergone numerous adjustments to carefully balance the people’s right to information on the one hand, and the interests for reasonable confidentiality and sound administrative practice, on the other.

This balancing process has already been exhausted. In truth, what is now left preventing the passage of the FOI law are the personal and speculative fears of our leaders of the people’s exercise of their right to know.

Today, we speak with one voice and join the rest of the people in demanding political will on the part of President Aquino, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, and House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. to lead their respective institutions in immediately enacting the FOI law.

With time fast running out on the 15th Congress, the long wait for the FOI Act should have been over yesterday. The time for decision is now.

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