Countries with Freedom of Information laws “have lower incidence of corruption” and a better quality of life than nations that just recently enforced such a measure or have none at all, according to a study by former Inquirer reporter Edson Tandoc Jr., a Fulbright scholar and doctoral candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism.
If reminders of his previous words still fail to prod President Aquino to act more quickly on the long-pending FOI bill, perhaps that piece of empirical evidence will do, given how he is said to be such a stickler for facts and figures during Cabinet meetings, as the Malacañang press office often points out.
Like his mother who famously said she hated unsolicited advice, Mr. Aquino appears to become even more stubborn the more he is badgered about a particular matter. As in the reproductive health bill, which got a definitive push from Malacañang only at the last minute, he seems to like taking his time to consider the matter at hand. That has been his stance vis-à-vis the Freedom of Information bill, a piece of legislation he championed on the campaign trail when he was wooing the public to vote for him as, in effect, the corrective replacement to the preceding nine-year regime that was badly marked by corruption scandals. The public took him at his word then, that his prospective administration would be distinguished from its predecessor by the honesty and transparency he would bring to Malacañang. The linchpin of that anticorruption governance, he promised the nation, was a law that would afford ordinary citizens the power to check for themselves the records of government transactions made in their name and paid for with their hard-earned taxes. The FOI bill was envisioned to bring a long-delayed measure of accountability to government conduct, making concrete Mr. Aquino’s vow of “daang matuwid” for his administration.
That hasn’t happened yet. In the last three years, despite a sustained public clamor for Congress to pass the FOI bill, Mr. Aquino has chosen to dither, refusing to certify it as an urgent piece of legislation and even failing to mention it in his latest State of the Nation Address. He has publicly walked back on his support for the bill, expressing reservations about the possible adverse effect it might have on the efficiency and orderliness of daily government work—as if the current system could stand as a model for such. He would like more time to study the pros and cons of empowering ordinary citizens to seek out public records, he has said; and with that, already midway into his term, the clock simply running out on the bill has become more and more a distinct possibility.
Tandoc compared the 2010 standings of 168 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index, Transparency International’s corruption perception index, and the Center for Law and Democracy, an organization that monitors such issues as respect for human rights and access to information in nations across the globe.
“The study shows that countries with mature FOI laws tend to have much lower corruption levels and higher standards of living than countries with younger laws, or no laws at all,” Tandoc said. But he pointed out that such legislation should not be seen as a quick fix: “The right to information should be used as a form of regular check on the government to prevent abuses instead of being considered … a last resort when corruption has already worsened.”
While the Philippines improved its ranking by 24 points in the latest (2012) corruption perception survey by Transparency International, its 105th place among 174 countries still tied it with countries such as Mali and Algeria and put it worlds away from its Southeast Asian neighbors such as Singapore (fifth), Brunei (46th), Malaysia (54th), and Thailand (88th).
Tandoc’s study won first place in the Moeller Student Competition of the Mass Communication and Society Division for the 2013 Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, an international organization of journalism educators. It supports what the public has long intuitively known—that a Freedom of Information law that considers the citizenry as active partners in governance would only be good for a country such as the Philippines. Failing to enact one would be a signal dereliction of duty for the Aquino administration.