Right to know
Last Friday, President Duterte’s executive order guaranteeing citizens freedom of information came into effect. This is a major leap forward in making government both transparent and accountable.
Several versions of a freedom of information bill have been lingering in both chambers of Congress for many years. Although freedom of information was a key campaign promise of the President’s predecessor, it was never tagged a priority measure and consequently remained trapped in the legislative mill.
President Duterte, a man of action, began his term by issuing an executive order on freedom of information. That opens up the entire executive branch to close public scrutiny by guaranteeing public access, especially to the integrated government database that is now being assembled. Any act of Congress that might follow will open up the judicial and legislative branches to the same scrutiny.
As is usual in all other countries, sensitive information affecting national security are exempt from public access. Other laws that provide for privileged information are likewise dutifully observed. But government contracts, the process of bidding for them, will all be available online to the public.
For President Duterte, the executive order is but a first step in building transparency in governance and guaranteeing the accountability of public officers. There are far-ranging consequences for guaranteeing the people’s right to know. As government puts together its information technology program, that right to know becomes almost instantaneous. Vital information will be literally at the fingertips of citizens.
Access to information empowers the citizenry. It allows them to be more engaged in the process of governance. It guards against abuse of authority and protects against corruption in the public sector.
Recall how Gen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, the rock-solid chief of the Philippine National Police, broke down and wept unabashedly at the Senate hearing last week upon learning that some of the officers he trusted turned out to be unworthy of that trust. The sheer weight of exasperation came crashing down on Bato’s shoulders. His is the tough job of cleaning up the ranks of the police force. It might have been easier for Hercules to clean up the Augean stables.
Government is faced with strong headwinds in whatever it tries to do. These are the headwinds of public disillusionment and skepticism. Our people were betrayed too many times by leaders who promised honest government. They have become distrustful of those who promise more of the same.
Freedom of information, however, cannot be an empty promise. It is a powerful tool put in the hands of concerned and sincere citizens. Any citizen, using his laptop at home, can actually examine government transactions, audit them and expose whatever anomaly he might discover.
Freedom of information is the beginning of inclusionary politics. Citizens will no longer be treated as outsiders looking into the affairs of government from a distance. With the right to know respected, all citizens become insiders armed with information. They become partners in ensuring honest governance, watchmen guarding the public coffers all hours of the day.
By issuing the executive order, President Duterte tells us it is not the citizens who are to be feared. It is those who commit illicit acts out of the public view that must be feared. They erode public trust in their government. They make effective governance impossible. They mock our democracy and the principle of accountability of public office.
Revolutions begin in quiet places. The executive order guaranteeing the public’s right to know is indeed revolutionary. Without fanfare, it hands over to our citizens the power to independently examine those who govern them. It will change the face of government in this country. It will put every public official under constant scrutiny from those they serve.
There is no need for trumpets to blare announcing the onset of a revolution in governance. The extent to which freedom of information will be revolutionary will depend on how much vigilance every citizen is prepared to exercise.