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Our right to know

It makes me nauseous whenever I hear news about small people being deprived of their simplest but legitimate moral claims.

Every day, many Filipinos are swayed by the epidemic of ignorance. When something happens in the bureaucracy, there is a huge clamor for investigating who’s guilty and who’s blameworthy. And after that burst of emotion, the momentum is not sustained. We do not know who is the real culprit, or should I say, we have a dearth of means to prove our innate instinct that someone had betrayed our trust.

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We boast that we are the first democratically chartered nation in Asia. But it is rather ironic that as our Constitution has ensured our civil liberties, we are still struggling toward free public participation in governance. Personality-based and dynastic politics bars us from asserting our basic right to seek accountability, trapping us in backwardness. When we blame others for our misfortune, we are deemed to be politicking. When we insist on access to important documents, we are accused of being insubordinate.

Section 7 of our Bill of Rights defines our right to information on matters of public concern. It says that records and papers pertaining to acts, transactions, and government research data shall be open to citizens. Given this, why do many journalists fail to meet their deadlines because custodians of a certain government agency’s archives did not allow them access to its budget breakdown for last year? Why are student leaders deprived of their right to gain access to the minutes of a state university’s board of regents meeting? And most importantly, why do mothers cum taxpayers have to endure a long queue in a first-class municipality’s barangay health center only to find out later that paracetamol tablets are sold for P4 each?

The last session of the 14th Congress was a huge disappointment. Then Speaker Prospero Nograles totally killed the Freedom of Information bill in the House of Representatives. Our Asian neighbors—who made the leap to democracy only two or three decades ago—gained greater grassroots empowerment with their own versions of that law enacted 5-10 years ago. These countries include India, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.

One of the reasons the proposed law is still in limbo in the Philippines is the unfaltering corruption among many elected and appointed bureaucrats. Some politicians naturally try their best to preserve the family wealth siphoned from public funds. After the acts of corruption that result in impoverished constituencies, government officials will try to pacify the hungry public with fanciful slogans such as “Ramdam ang kaunlaran (Progress is now being felt).” But an independent investigation of the veracity of such a slogan would be hampered by the lack of comprehensive material which should be readily available in digital mode or on paper.

Many harbor the suspicion that officials of the past regime are afraid of the possible effects of the Freedom of Information bill. And yet they never fail to pay lip service to transparency and the battle against corruption. If we are serious in the effort to bring back integrity in our institutions, we should demand legislation that will penalize public officials who fail to provide correct and sufficient government data. Of course, this information should include statements of assets, liabilities and net worth, records of House sessions, list of transactions, and many others that involve public interest. It is a matter of self-respect on our part, more than a right, to be apprised of something we paid for from our pockets.

House Bill No. 3732, or the proposed Freedom of Information Act, should have been the legacy of the Arroyo administration. But for as long as we see nothing but shrugs, and hear nothing but false sentiments, we will be constantly walking in darkness. I am really hopeful that this time, the Freedom of Information bill will be enacted into law as the impetus for more comprehensive initiatives for government transparency and accountability. As Asia’s first republic, and as the driving force behind People Power revolts around the world, we need to lead emerging democracies in the fight against corruption. We are all actors in this lot. And if we are a real democracy, our elected officials will not violate our right to know.

Francis Bautista, 22, is pursuing a master’s degree in Araling Pilipino at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City. He completed a bachelor’s degree in communication research (cum laude) at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines in 2010.

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TAGS: Francis Bautista, Freedom of Information, human rights, opinion, Young Blood
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