As we celebrate the 123rd year of Philippine Independence, attaining freedom of information has remained elusive, and the burning issues of the day still include transparency and corruption in government. Filipinos tackle very basic pandemic safety issues such as the basis for the government’s choice of vaccines, the outcome of the contact tracing done given the number of contact tracers hired, and trust issues surrounding the government’s official tracing app. Also, in 2020, the Philippines fell further down the bottom half of the Corruption Perceptions Index, placing 115th out of 180 nations, according to the annual report of Transparency International.
The enactment of the proposed Freedom of Information (FOI) law at this time can be a huge boost to enhancing transparency and accountability in our government, and could serve the interests of business in ensuring a level playing field in the private sector, especially in the conduct of transactions with the government.
The right of “every citizen to access official records, documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development” is constitutionally enshrined under Section 7, Article III of the Philippine Constitution. Section 28 of Article II of the Constitution mandates the government to adopt and implement a policy of full public disclosure of all its transactions involving public interest.
We have FOI Executive Order No. 2, s. 2016, one of President Duterte’s first issuances. However, as an EO, it only covers the executive department and can be rescinded at any time. Thus, there is a need for legislation mandating coverage of all government institutions and agencies. But since the late Sen. Raul Roco first filed the FOI bill in 1987 (8th Congress), it has never been enacted.
Hence, the new push for the passage by the 18th Congress of an FOI law that will operationalize the constitutional right to information comes at an opportune time. The people behind the Right to Know Right Now Coalition (R2KRN) have been pushing for the bill since 2000, when the group was still known as Access to Information Network (ATIN). As early as 2009, the business sector, represented by Makati Business Club (MBC), had expressed support for FOI. In 2020, it conducted workshops and roundtable discussions with business organizations, leaders, legislators, and other stakeholders to drum up support for the bill among the business community.
Having the right to information on matters of public interest constitutes a significant advantage for companies in adopting business strategies and investment plans. It creates an environment of empowerment for businesses as well as citizens. It strengthens legal and regulatory compliance and helps minimize business risks. The availability of information, especially on policy research data and other statistics, enables effective business practices. For MBC and other business organizations, an FOI law will promote a fluid flow of information between the government and the business sector, maximizing the potential for synergies and economic growth.
The standard legal processes and mechanisms to avail of the right under the proposed FOI law would ensure that big and small businesses alike have equal access to public information. Studies show that this leads to a dependable business environment, promoting the creation of stable market conditions conducive to good economic development and socioeconomic justice.
More importantly, the FOI law would be a potent tool to fight corruption in government, which is acknowledged as a severe impediment to sustainable economic, political, and social progress for countries at all levels of development.
The laudable initiative of different organizations and coalitions to push for the enactment of an FOI law, 34 years since it was first introduced, deserves the support of both the business sector and the public. The FOI law is a bastion of hope to rid government of corruption and create a culture of trust, transparency, and accountability in government, another step toward achieving genuine and meaningful independence. #PassFOINow
Lawyer Arlene G. Lapuz-Ureta is the senior legal counsel of Nissan Philippines, Inc. She is the president of the Legal Management Council of the Philippines and UP Women Lawyers’ Circle. She currently teaches at the UP College of Law.
Business Matters is a project of the Makati Business Club ([email protected]).
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