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There’s the Rub

Let’s use it well

The Freedom of Information (FOI) bill that the Senate passed last Monday will not include Malacañang divulging the proceedings of its confidential meetings. At least until such time as those meetings end up in policy declarations, in which case the public may demand a summary of their salient points.

Frankly, I don’t know why that provision came into consideration at all. The nature of confidential meetings is precisely that they are confidential. And the reason they are confidential is not necessarily because they deal with national secrets but because they deal with personal ones. Those meetings are home, too, to banter and gossip, the language being irreverent and full of politically incorrect jokes. You want to parade that like dirty linen before the public?

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There are limits to the virtue of transparency or honesty, those limits having been shown in all their absurdity by hilarious movies like “The Invention of Lying” and “Liar, Liar.” You can’t very well have, as in “The Invention of Lying,” someone opening the door and telling you, “Oh, sorry, I couldn’t answer the doorbell at once, I was upstairs jerking off.” Civilization cannot survive such levels of honesty, which is why it invented, if not lying, at least discretion.

Not putting confidential meetings on the record is not not being transparent, it’s being, well, civilized.

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But I’m glad the FOI has finally been passed, even if only by the Senate, even if the House, which needs to fling its doors open the most, has yet to do it. Grace Poe, who has been tireless in pushing it, deserves a great deal of the credit. The way she shepherded the bill to its approval in the Senate is an example of how to get things done. Poe is one of the calmer, more level-headed, senators. She isn’t loud, she isn’t strident, she isn’t kulang sa pansin and weighing in on everything in front of the cameras. She is quiet, focused, and sees things through. She has seen this through.

You wonder why Speaker Sonny Belmonte hasn’t done the same. He vows that the FOI will pass before his term ends in 2016, but that is much too late. It’s well past due, it should have become law as soon as P-Noy stepped on the plate. Why the foot-dragging? The choice is simple, as Poe points out: “Madali lang naman ang pagpipilian—dilim o liwanag. Kailangang masinagan ng araw ang lahat ng transakyon ng pamahalaan.” (The choice is easy—dark or light. The light of day has to illuminate all transactions of government.)

Of course, the FOI is just like any of the items in the Bill of Rights. It’s just a potential, an enabler. Its power lies in our ability to use it. Having the right to assemble means nothing if people do not particularly feel inclined to assemble out of fear or indifference. Having the right to demand all sorts of records or documents from government means nothing if people will not demand them anyway out of the tedious lawyerly procedures it entails, or worse, out of not knowing what to ask for in the first place. But better to have a potential than none at all, as well we know from the Bill of Rights being scrapped during martial law.

More this, the FOI isn’t merely an enabler, it’s a catalyst. It’s an instrument that encourages people to take an active—and intelligent—part in the way they are governed. Poe again puts it this way: “The FOI will not only prevent graft and corruption but, more importantly, our citizens will learn to get involved and participate and thus will become true stakeholders in government. This is the true essence of democracy.”

That’s the subtler point about the value of the FOI, but the far more important one. One is tempted to say that is probably just a hope, a lofty one but not an easily realizable one. But it is a hope that’s not unfounded or greatly removed from reality. Lest we forget, the clamor for the passage of the FOI rose to thunderous levels late last year at the height of the frenzied popular protest against pork. The one that was marked in particular by the Million People March on Heroes Day last August, a march that had the remarkable quality of being next to leaderless. It was as dazzling a show of people power as you could get—but one that arose, not from a need to oust government, but to stop corruption.

The struggle for the FOI at least, if not the FOI itself, is allied, or strongly linked, to the struggle for the people’s voices to be heard in national discourse, in the shaping of national policy. The FOI did not create that spontaneous protest; the social media, more than any other, did. But the FOI stands to impact back on it. At the very least, it won’t just give impetus to the public weighing down on things, it can give some direction to it.

The public weighing down on things also has a downside, as we saw last year. It doesn’t always result in the people trying to shape the terms of their governance, it can also result in people merely ranting and vituperating and parading their ignorance before the world. It doesn’t always result in reasoned, or at least reasonably thought-out, observations about the way we live, it can also result in vicious rumors, innuendoes, and downright lies about just about everyone.

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The FOI helps in part to stem this tide, or better still, steer it to a more positive direction. You’ve got the freedom to obtain information, what’s your excuse for displaying ignorance? You’ve got the freedom to ascertain information, what’s your excuse for passing off speculation as fact, wish fulfillment as fulfillment? You’ve got the freedom to test information every which way, what’s your excuse for passing off stupidity as wisdom?

The true essence of democracy is not just that we have freedom, it’s that we use it well. We now have freedom of information.

Let’s use it well.

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TAGS: Conrado de Quiros, FOI Bill, freedom of information bill, opinion, Speaker Sonny Belmonte, There’s the Rub
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