Rekindling hope for an FOI law | Inquirer Opinion
Editorial

Rekindling hope for an FOI law

/ 05:15 AM June 23, 2023

Now that President Marcos himself has spoken out against fake news and disinformation as hurdles to good governance, dare we rekindle hope that the long languishing freedom of information (FOI) bill would finally be enacted into law?

In his speech during the opening of the International Conference of Information Commissioners (ICIC) on Monday, the President said that “[l]ike everyone here, we too recognize as a matter of principle that fake news should have no place in modern society,”

Commending this global network of commissioners, ombudspersons, and other bodies for its work of overseeing the implementation of access to public information through legislation and policies, the President described such access as “key to our pursuit of good governance, improved public services, and a more progressive and sustainable society.” As “a robust democracy,” the country reaffirms its “commitment to champion this basic human right [that] remains indelibly etched in our fundamental law,” the Chief Executive added.

Upholding the truth has always been a Herculean task, more so with the rise of social media where anonymity translates into lack of accountability in spreading fake news, a major factor undermining public discourse, the reportage of news, election results, and even global health. One casualty of such disinformation is COVID-19, which was dismissed as merely “part of a conspiracy” until it exploded into a pandemic.

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That nine out of 10, or 86 percent, of Filipinos regard fake news as a serious problem was confirmed by a Pulse Asia survey conducted from Sept. 17 to 21, 2022, which also identified its leading sources as social media influencers, bloggers, and vloggers, followed by journalists and national level politicians.

The Marcos administration’s plan to launch a digital media literacy campaign to combat disinformation thus comes as a welcome move, but one that the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP) cautioned, should “not lead to the labeling of critical reports and of dissent as ‘fake news.’” The group noted that an earlier similar campaign “has led to confusion and polarization and, in the context of media, has been used to attack the integrity and trustworthiness of newsrooms and journalists” who have been labeled “terrorists and enemies of the state.”

The College Editors Guild of the Philippines-Cordillera noted that the killing of radio broadcaster Cresenciano Bunduquin is the third under the barely year-old Marcos administration, after that of broadcaster Rey Blanco and popular radio personality Percival “Percy Lapid” Mabasa. With 60 reported rights violations against journalists from June 30, 2022 to April 30 this year, the Philippines remains one of the world’s “most dangerous” places for journalists, Reporters Without Borders added.

At the same time, NUJP challenged the Marcos administration to include in its drive against misinformation and disinformation “an openness on government transactions and records, and greater access for journalists to officials and agency heads.”

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Indeed, while the Duterte administration signed the FOI executive order in 2016 with some exceptions on access to certain documents, President Marcos further emaciated it with a raft of more limitations on government-held information that he deemed should remain inaccessible to the public. On March 17 this year, Mr. Marcos issued a memorandum circular that expanded the list of documents excluded from public disclosure.

In his speech before the ICIC, the President harped on the need “to empower our people to make informed decisions to participate fully in the democratic process, and hold their representatives accountable without fear or apprehension.” Such lofty intention, however, clashes with the experience of journalists and private individuals who faced rebuff and had to jump hoops in their request for important information, such as the costs of the President’s foreign trips, and the statement of assets, liabilities, and net worth of top government officials. Documents for the former need public scrutiny to ensure the judicious use of taxpayer money, while those for the latter would deter corruption and are required both by the Constitution and the law prescribing the code of conduct and ethical standards for public officials.

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While his words slamming disinformation are certainly commendable, Mr. Marcos must go further to support transparency and accountability in government by certifying as urgent the passage of an FOI law, which would be more encompassing than a mere executive order that applies only to the executive branch. FOI bills have long been pending in both houses of Congress, and a presidential certification would make it a priority for approval by the Senate and the House. Doing so would concretize his ICIC speech where he issued a call “not only to the executive branch, but to all branches of government, to genuinely uphold and give effect to the people’s freedom of information in the course of our day-to-day operations, with good faith and with openness.” To do any less would reduce his own words to fake news.

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TAGS: Editorial, Freedom of Information

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