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Obsolete reform tool?

/ 10:10 PM August 17, 2012

To jump-start the long-stalled Freedom of Information bill, journalists designated Aug. 15 as “FOI Day.” They “pledged to publish and upload a pooled editorial” to prod a skittish House of Representatives to act. Ma. Ceres Doyo ran the text in her column titled “Push, pass the FOI Act now!” (Inquirer, 8/16/12).

The first-ever pooled editorial in local journalism skewered the “Compartmentalized Justice” of the then decaying “New Society.” All dailies ran it on the same day. Radio stations broadcast the text, along with the new kid on the block then: TV news programs. President Ferdinand Marcos went ballistic.

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At the Philippine Press Institute, we rechecked drafts that publishers blue-penciled. We were a wet-behind-the-ears journalist then. Our job included ensuring that the pooled editorial clattered out on teletypes. The editorial set a precedent. But the innovation didn’t fully register on us, a greenhorn, then.

Malacañang phone calls went to Institute members with less grit than Joaquin “Chino” Roces. When a follow-up pooled editorial was proposed, the now defunct Evening News hastily bailed out. Others waffled. Thus, a second pooled editorial never materialized.

Marcos got his pound of flesh under Proclamation 1081. He jailed Roces and Manila Chronicle publisher Eugenio Lopez. He padlocked the Manila Times, the Philippines Free Press, the Graphic, and ironically even the papers that buckled. In between, he enticed publishers into his camp.

At an Institute meeting in the old Capitol Publishing compound, Manila Bulletin’s Hans Menzi revealed that he had signed on as Marcos’ senior military aide. There was stunned silence. In the presiding officer’s chair, then University of the Philippines president Carlos P. Romulo shifted uneasily. Chino Roces twirled his cigar. Philippine News Service’s Romeo Abundo gagged on his coffee.

“If you were publishing laundry lists, I’d have no objection,” the courtly Don Ramon Roces finally said. “But Hans, my friend, you’re publishing a newspaper.”

The rest is now history, including the November 2005 Supreme Court decision that declared: 198,052 Manila Bulletin shares were the “ill-gotten wealth of the defendant Marcos spouses.” Singapore’s Supreme Court ruled, this week, that $23 million in stashed Marcos assets be returned to Philippine National Bank.

Technology, ownership of cyberspace altered the “pooled editorial.” Sun Star, for example, periodically runs a pooled editorial in its syndicated network members. Would metropolitan publishers, of varying persuasions and economic interests, agree on a pool? Meanwhile, Twitter and Facebook impinge on newsrooms. Is this “pool” an outdated “measure of last resort”?

The medium is not the message, as today’s controversy over the FOI bill shows. Information ushers in transparency, the anchor of good governance. Section 7 of the Constitution provides for the citizen’s right to public information. State policy seeks full disclosure of transactions involving public interest.

After dawdling for months, President Aquino—who pledged in his campaign to press for an FOI  bill—gave the green light for the measure in January. “We acknowledge efforts by reformers in the executive branch, namely Budget Secretary Florencio ‘Butch’ Abad and Information Undersecretary Manuel L. Quezon III,” said The Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition.

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That sense of relief came from being scalded by experience. The congressmen-allies of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo sabotaged the FOI bill in the 14th Congress. On closing day, Prospero Nograles (Davao) and Pedro Romualdo (Camiguin) led a coalition that killed the FOI. It needed merely a few minutes for ratification. But the regime hefted the old dodge of questioning the quorum.

Only 128 House members showed up—seven short of the 135 needed in a House of 268 members. After the “slaughter,” journalists tracked text messages from the House leadership to stay away. Thus, 140 truants strangled the FOI.

The day after the House strangled the bill, President Aquino pledged to fast-track the FOI. Quezon Rep. Lorenzo “Erin” Tañada predicted an early approval of a reintroduced measure. That’d make the FOI the “very first legacy” of the 15th Congress under the second Aquino administration.

That did not come to pass. The 15th Congress is now meandering to a close. Were those January well-wishes premature? Yes, says the pooled editorial.

The Right to Know Coalition prodded Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone to “transform rhetoric into reality.” Evardone, who preens of his earlier incarnation as a journalist, heads the House committee on public information. He failed to “harmonize 15 versions of the FOI bill” in his committee.

After the State of the Nation Address, Evardone promised that he’d put the FOI bill “on the front burner.” Well, Sona 3 has come—and gone. Evardone’s pledge hasn’t been redeemed.

“Executive agencies have become more transparent, anyway,” other spokespersons insist. The Department of Budget and Management, under Abad, uploads unprecedented amounts of public fund data from pork barrel to projects.

These welcome reforms need to be institutionalized. Benigno Aquino III will not be President forever. The 16th President (it does not have to be Jejomar Binay) can scrap those reforms with the stroke of a pen.

“Media’s power is frail. Without the people’s support, it can be shut off with the ease of turning a light switch,” Corazon Aquino always warned.

(E-mail: [email protected])

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TAGS: Freedom of Information, Juan L. Mercado, Legislation, Media, opinion, Viewpoint
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