Right to know
The incongruity between what is being pontificated and what is being done is too glaring to be missed. Judging from the lip service, everyone seems agreed on the noble purpose of and the urgent need for a Freedom of Information (FOI) law. Yet it does not look like the mother bill will get past the 15th Congress—and it is not because the proposed law is uncharted territory.
In the previous Congress, the Senate approved such a bill. No less than then Speaker Prospero Nograles firmly assured the nation that the House of Representatives was certain to pass it. But on the House’s final day of session, the proposed law’s long-dreamt enactment could not materialize for “lack of quorum.” (To think that the House has given countless bills the thumbs-up despite sparse attendance, simply because nobody on the floor dared raise the question of quorum.)
And so the FOI bill, the enactment of which journalists have long clamored for, had to be filed again for approval by the present 15th Congress. Its chances? At this writing, the Senate committee on public information chaired by Sen. Gregorio Honasan, who renamed it the People’s Ownership of Government Information (Pogi) bill, has forwarded its consolidated version for plenary deliberations. Malacañang had earlier expressed full support for the bill, with the submission of its own version to both chambers of the legislature. But given the reluctance of a large number of House members to make public their statements of assets, liabilities and net worth—which an FOI law will certainly make accessible to the public, whether they like it or not—it seems certain that we’re headed for a rerun of the House’s duplicity in the 14th Congress.
The proposed law is anchored on at least three basic democratic propositions: that all information related to governance, with very few, strict exceptions, belong to the people; that the free flow of information is essential to the exercise of genuine democracy; and that free access to information ensures transparency and accountability.
These concepts are not novel, present-day inventions. They are in fact among the basic principles that animated American democracy from its birth, echoing through generations to the present, though articulated differently.
“[W]ere it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter,” Thomas Jefferson, a founding father of American democracy, once said. It would serve the nation well if our lawmakers bear this immortal quote in mind.
“A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or, perhaps, both,” cautioned US President James Madison on Aug. 4, 1822.
Acquiring information through clear-cut, well-defined means is what an FOI law can usefully provide. After all, the right to information is a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution. Section 7, Article III in the Bill of Rights states: “The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized. Access to official records, and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.”
Thus, an FOI law will enable the exposure of both the government and public servants to the reassuring sunlight of transparency and accountability, and also the empowerment of the citizenry and the encouragement of its informed participation in government processes. As it is, access to vital information depends largely on the sufferance of the leaders of government agencies. (Sen. Teofisto Guingona put it simply: “If we want people to effectively participate in government, transparent and accessible information are vital. An FOI law is both a blessing and a challenge to good governance. If people have the right information, they must learn to use the same to contribute to nation-building.”)
This is the most auspicious time to enact the FOI bill, with the nation having just removed a chief justice by impeachment on issues of transparency and accountability. We must not lose the momentum for good governance. How ironic it would be if the House that impeached then Chief Justice Renato Corona once again passes up the opportunity.