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Editorial

FOI bravado live

/ 12:50 AM March 22, 2016

TO HEAR the four presidential candidates last Sunday, it would appear as if the freedom of information (FOI) bill were everyone’s favorite piece of legislation. The first sustained wrangle in the debate proper was over the bill which, after nearly six years of President Aquino’s administration, remains an unrealized law—approved in the Senate but stalled in the House of Representatives.

Ah, but no worries—each of the four candidates just about tripped all over themselves and each other in promising to pass the bill once they get to Malacañang. That it would be their first order of business was the unanimous vow. Sen. Grace Poe, who had batted for and shepherded the version of the bill that was approved in the Senate, said she would not even wait for the bill to become law; she would use her presidential powers to issue an executive order directing all government agencies to practice open and transparent governance. Vice President Jejomar Binay, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte and former interior secretary Mar Roxas also said as much—all three vowing not only to support the measure but also to make it a cornerstone principle of their future administration.

If, at this time, viewers felt a prickly sense of déjà vu at the runaway zeal for the FOI bill unfolding on their TV screens, that could only be because they had heard it all before. In 2010, all across the country, then presidential candidate Benigno Aquino III fired up an electorate fed up with the corruption and excesses of the nine-year administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo with the promise that he would make the passage of the FOI bill a priority. It would mark a clean break with the rotten, dishonest dispensation before it, Mr. Aquino said, and light the way for his mantra of “daang  matuwid.”

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But the erstwhile FOI champion had a different epiphany once he was ensconced in the Palace. Merely a year into his term, Mr. Aquino was prodded on the bill’s glacial pace at the House that was then and even now dominated by his party and allies, and this time he waffled: “You know, having a freedom of information act sounds so good and noble, but at the same time—I think you’ll notice that here in this country— there’s a tendency of getting information and not really utilizing it for the proper purposes,” he told a gathering of Southeast Asian business leaders.

That hedging was the cue for Congress to mothball the bill for the rest of Mr. Aquino’s term. The Senate passed its version of the bill in March 2014, while the House version cleared the committee on public information in November 2014. But with Mr. Aquino refusing to certify it as urgent, FOI was as good as dead—the fate it has repeatedly been subjected to since 1992, when the first of many attempts to pass a bill that would flesh out the constitutional requirement for open, transparent government was filed.

“The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized,” Article III, Section 7 of the 1987 Constitution says. “Access to official records, and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.” How game-changing the Aquino administration would have been had it made good its promise to enact an FOI law; instead, the electorate must now contend with a new bunch of presidentiables brawling on national TV to prove their individual fealty to the FOI cause.

Will they deliver? Roxas, who has had the ear of the President all this time, never came out publicly to call for the FOI’s passage before this debate. Duterte said he was all for it, but when the Commission on Audit questioned him on “ghost employees” on the Davao City Hall payroll, the mayor shooed the COA away—as he did human rights observers looking into alleged summary executions during his watch. Poe’s commitment to FOI will be tested once her ties to certain people bankrolling her campaign are put under scrutiny—Danding Cojuangco and the coco-levy funds, for instance, as well as those pushing her to amend the economic provisions of the Constitution.

And Binay? The Vice President has made a dubious art form of ducking any opportunity to explain the array of plunder and corruption charges against him. He has refused to appear in the Senate or other venues that would clear his name, rejecting the idea that he owes anyone an accounting of his public record. Will such a man champion FOI? Can a leopard change its spots?

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TAGS: debate, debates, editorial, FOI, Freedom of Information, freedom of information bill, opinion
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