FOI: Waiting for the Hail Mary Pass
While the Senate has passed the Freedom of Information Bill (before its members descended into a deadly knife-fight), the House of Representatives still has to bring the FOI bill to the plenary for debate. Why the bill seems to be headed for a fiasco similar to what happened to it on the last day the 14th Congress, when a quorum call was made to scuttle its ratification, is traced by some of the bill’s advocates to the lack of enthusiasm for it on the part of key players in the House and Malacanang. Others fault the majority of House members, who, they say, would much rather engage in early electoral campaigning than attend session to assure a quorum. Whatever the reasons, the bill’s sponsors in the House are still hanging on to the Speaker’s observation that in that chamber, “things usually come together in the last three days.”
At this juncture, here are some thoughts, of a more reflective, theoretical kind, on the importance of having a Freedom of Information Act.
The state predates democracy, and at the heart of the state is the bureaucracy. Thus it is not surprising that the development of the modern state has been marked by a struggle between the bureaucratic principle and the democratic principle. In the Philippines, we embraced democracy as our principle of governance, but the Philippine state at independence also carried the baggage of the authoritarian bureaucratic state of the Spanish and American colonial periods.
Public information has been one of the battlefields between bureaucracy and democracy. Bureaucracy thrives on secrecy. For authoritarian bureaucrats, secrecy is essential to their practice of governance from the top. From their perspective, the less the people know, the better for governance and public order.
The democratic revolution turned this authoritarian maxim on its head. The more people knew, the better they could govern themselves. The practices of bureaucracy, however, die hard, and bureaucratic elites have been loath to yield knowledge, for they realize that knowledge is power, and the less the masses know, the less powerful they are.
This is why democracy is a constant struggle not only for self-government, but for transparency, for gaining knowledge of the affairs of the state without which citizens cannot effectively govern themselves. This is why the fight for the Freedom of Information Act is a necessary step in the struggle for a mature democratic state. This is why transparency is intertwined with democracy. This is why authoritarian elites fear transparency, for they are, at heart, suspicious of and fear democracy.
With the passage of the FOI Act, the Philippines will join the ranks of the 95 countries that Wikipedia claims now have Freedom of Information legislation. Many of these countries became democracies later than the Philippines, yet some of these late-democratic states have overtaken us and become more mature democracies than we are.
Passing the bill is our passport to joining the ranks of mature democracies. Not passing it means we remain in the company of bureaucratic authoritarian states like the People’s Republic of China, which have erected non-transparency as a principle of their systems of authoritarian governance.
The bureaucratic elite says that the FOI will compromise national security. On the contrary, it will make the Philippine Republic a stronger republic. The bureaucrats say the FOI will make it hard for them to govern. On the contrary, it will force officials to govern correctly and without the seduction of corruption, which thrives in the dark. The bureaucrats say the FOI is not necessary. On the contrary, without the transparency that the FOI sheds on the affairs of state, our democracy will eventually come under threat.
In football, there is a phenomenon called the “Hail Mary pass,” a long, desperate pass in the last few seconds that results in a winning goal. Will the quarterback finally unleash that pass to the many receivers waiting to score the touchdown for FOI that will be one of the crowning glories of the 15th Congress?
*INQUIRER.net columnist Walden Bello is a member of the House of Representatives. He can be reached at email@example.com.