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Editorial

Fresh push for FOI

/ 05:20 AM July 05, 2019

Among the first bills proposed on the first working day of the 18th Congress, according to a report in this paper, was the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill—filed, or refiled rather, by Cebu Rep. Raul del Mar in the House of Representatives and Sen. Grace Poe in the Senate.

Ah, the FOI bill. Whatever did happen to it?

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A new era of transparency in government under an FOI law was, once upon a time, one of the major promises of then presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte. But that resolve mysteriously dissipated after Mr. Duterte’s ascension to Malacañang; in the end, all he could manage was an executive order mandating an FOI culture in the executive branch, instead of cracking the whip on his supermajority in Congress—which had broken no sweat complying with his other to-do’s, like targeting Sen. Leila de Lima with spurious charges and impeaching Supreme Court Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno—to work on crafting an honest-to-goodness FOI law that would have served as the lodestone of a more honest, open government.

Why would lawmakers balk at passing the FOI bill, when it would implement the constitutional provision recognizing the people’s right to information on matters of public concern? As Article III, Section 7 of the 1987 Charter so orders, “Access to official records, and to documents, and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, as well as government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded citizens, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.”

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Then again, what are lawmakers and politicians in power for if they cannot fend off and sideline any constraints on their power, which rests in part on keeping the electorate in the dark about the disreputable, byzantine ways of government? And so the FOI bill that would have fleshed out the constitutional provision, first proposed by the late Sen. Raul Roco 32 years ago, has since been refiled—and stonewalled—10 times by Congress.

Mr. Duterte’s convenient about-face on FOI has resulted in the very opposite of the governance environment he had promised: The official mindset these days favors less public information, not more. In the last Congress, for instance, Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo pushed a move to restrict public access to the statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) of House members by imposing next-to-impossible requirements before SALNs could be accessed, even by members of the media. That retrograde outlook has also infected the Supreme Court, which issued its own internal directive restricting public access to the justices’ SALNs and personal data sheets, affording any petitioner only a “summary” and not the detailed information citizens deserve to see.

However, while the top levels of government still feel the need to skulk in the shadows, welcome breaks in the fog are seemingly appearing on the local government front—from young leaders with fresh ideas and dispositions about the need to shine more light on governmental goings-on.

New Manila Mayor Francisco “‘Isko” Moreno Domagoso’s first official act was to issue  an “open governance” policy in his administration, under which all official issuances in the city must be published in its media platforms within 24 hours after issuance and/or approval. Covered are executive orders, appointments, ordinances, as well as project approval and activities.

The most striking component of Moreno’s order is this: All procurement and bidding transactions, contract signings and official meetings of city officers will henceforth be livestreamed on social media platforms. Each department under Moreno’s office is also required to appoint its own social media officers who will engage the public and crowdsource feedback on issues relevant to the Manila City Hall constituency.

Last year, a similar bold initiative was championed by then councilor and now Pasig City Mayor Victor “Vico” Sotto. Ordinance No. 37—“The Pasig Transparency Mechanism Ordinance”—allows the disclosure of city public records, including financial documents and contracts, upon request by ordinary citizens. The law effectively made Pasig the first city in Metro Manila to have its own version of the FOI law.

Moreno and Sotto’s innovative efforts to install more transparent administrations—particularly in terms of the game-changing move to harness technology and modern means to ensure public accountability—should, at the very least, shame the old guard about their recalcitrant ways, and pump new blood into the drive to wrestle a national FOI law out of Congress’ enduring, self-serving chokehold.

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TAGS: 18th Congress, FOI Bill, opinion, Philippines
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