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We have the right to know

/ 08:52 PM October 30, 2013

It’s called the proposed Freedom of Information Act and it seeks to promote transparency in government transactions. The President promised its passage during the campaign: He must honor his promise. He certified the Reproductive Health and Sin Tax Reform measures as urgent; the FOI bill should not be an exception, but it has been. He’s exhibiting a demonstrable reluctance to push it. Government service is a public trust, and the public can only trust you if it knows what you are doing. The bill has been languishing in Congress since 1992. And we may have to wait for another 21 years before an FOI bill gets through Congress, unless the President agrees to prioritize it. He has proved to be an honest, upright man dedicated to the “daang matuwid” (straight path). He has made a promise, he is obliged to keep it. Oh, I know campaign promises by politicians aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, but he promised to be different. To clean up this society, to bring honesty back into government. I must say there are times when I don’t understand P-Noy; he wants a clean government but doesn’t, it seems, want to open it to scrutiny to help achieve that cleanliness. It makes no sense.

The theft of pork from the barrel and the possible misuse of the DAP (Disbursement Acceleration Program) give the President no choice. If he is truly serious of his straight path, he must now prioritize passage of the FOI bill.

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There is no doubt he’s changed the attitude to corruption with some successful actions at the top, but this hasn’t filtered down the bureaucracy. Honesty hasn’t been institutionalized, bribery has. I hear many stories confirming this. And the attempts by Commissioner Ruffy Biazon to clean up Customs further confirm it. He has set a personal example. No one, not even his belligerent enemies, has been able to question his honesty. But important as that example is, one man does not make a government.

We need to know what that government under him is doing; so does he. We need to be able to expose dishonesty so he can do something about it.

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As Boo Chanco said in his column of Oct. 4: “Why is it so difficult for this administration to understand that the people, particularly those who helped get them to Malacañang, are holding them to a very much higher standard of behavior? If this happened during Ate Glue’s time, we would have been just as indignant, but would have shrugged our shoulders and say that’s expected from her.

“But P-Noy? If P-Noy cannot behave in the straight and narrow way he promised he would, then this country is hopeless.”

I think this is the crux of it: We’re looking up to him to break the decades of corruption this country has been saddled with, and in this matter he’s letting us down. Yet he has promised that honesty in his watch. For example, in a statement he made (Aug. 23) soon after the pork barrel scam emerged, he said: “The information will be there for you to monitor: Let us understand and examine it. I am calling on each and every Filipino to do his part, even as we do ours. Together, let us work to strengthen accountability and transparency in government, in order to ensure that public funds are utilized in a just manner—one that truly benefits the Filipino people.”

Well, we can’t help him if we don’t know. An honest man has nothing to hide; neither does an honest government. Oh, there are some issues on national security and the like, but these can be addressed in a carefully constructed law. But it must be one that errs on the side of openness, or we get the kind of excessiveness the United States has demonstrated a capability for—as Edward Snowden has exposed.

What is strange about this is that back in February 2012, the President transmitted his version of the FOI bill to the House and directed a Palace study group to “push ahead” with reviewing it further. Congress duly worked on it, but without prioritization by the President—something he withheld despite considerable pressure—it never passed. It was first filed in 1992, and is now in its 21st year. It has reached maturity and you’d think it can now be allowed to act on its own. To be a law. It’s even mandated by the people (his bosses, as he frequently reminds us) in the Constitution. Article lll, Section 7 says: “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.” Article II, Section 28 says: “Subject to reasonable conditions prescribed by law, the State adopts and implements a policy of full public disclosure of all its transactions involving public interest.”

Seems clear enough, he is obliged to do it.

Resolving high-profile graft and corruption cases is important if the Philippines is to improve its ranking in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. The country is ranked 105th of 176 economies. Improving its image in global anticorruption surveys is essential if it is to attract more foreign direct investments, which will generate jobs for the poor and help the government break the poverty trap. (The ranks of the poor ROSE to 27 million in 2012 from 26 million in 2009.) An FOI law will help clean up government and help attain a “trickle down” effect to jobs for the poor.

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All the measure needs is the President’s imprimatur so that it finally gets through Congress. He did it with the Sin Tax Reform and RH measures. The proposed Freedom of Information Act is just as important. He can do it, and now is the time.

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TAGS: FOI Bill, Freedom of Information Act, Legislation, Like It Is, opinion, Peter Wallace
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