FOI a basic right
IN 2005, in Tacurong, Sultan Kudarat, journalist Marlene Esperat was murdered in a most heinous manner. A gunman entered her home and shot her in the head in front of her family. She died on the spot; the gunman fled the scene on a motorcycle driven by an accomplice.
At the time of her death, Esperat was under police protection for the death threats she was receiving as a result of the exposés on corruption that she wrote in her weekly column in the local paper Midland Review. It was she who blew the whistle on, among others, the “fertilizer scam,” in which then Agriculture Undersecretary Jocjoc Bolante was said to have diverted P728 million in fertilizer funds intended for farmers to the campaign kitty of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who was running for election as president in 2004.
Stung by the controversy, Bolante fled to the United States and applied for asylum; denied that course, he was deported to the Philippines two years later. In the Senate, he disavowed the scam and cleared Arroyo and other officials alleged to have been involved in the scheme—despite the findings of both the Commission on Audit and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism of irregularities in the release and use of the fertilizer funds.
Esperat’s case is illustrative of the dangers that investigative journalists, crusading activists and concerned citizens face when exposing corruption in public office: Poke too deeply into official transactions, especially those that smell fishy, and you run the risk of a violent blowback from people in power—government officials, military and police, the various operators, syndicates and private-sector partners with whom they are in cahoots—who are invested in keeping their illegal behavior, and any paper trail, secret from public scrutiny at all costs.
That impulse for secrecy and concealment in government activities, whether illicit or not, is obviously antithetical to the democratic hallmarks of transparency and openness. But in the post-Marcos years, it has become the norm in governance, empowered by a system that does not formally require government officials to keep open records, or to entertain the requests of concerned citizens for specific information.
Both the Constitution and the Supreme Court have held that the public has a right to information. But, in the absence of a specific freedom of information law in the books akin to the US Freedom of Information Act, one administration after another—and the government offices taking their cue from them—have made it a generally frustrating, often fruitless experience for ordinary citizens to get their hands on timely, complete and accurate government-held records in which they have an interest. Arroyo’s administration, in particular, actively sought to undermine this right by liberally invoking executive privilege and barring its Cabinet officials from appearing in public hearings.
When he was seeking the presidency, Benigno Aquino III promised to remedy this opaque brand of governance through an FOI law. It was a central campaign promise that he failed to fulfill. Despite enjoying healthy majorities in Congress throughout his term, he never pushed the FOI bill as a priority measure; both the Senate and the House had crafted their own versions of the bill by this time, and the prospect of a consolidated FOI law finally coming to fruition some 28 years after Sen. Raul Roco filed the first bill of such nature seemed attainable. Still, no dice.
President Duterte made his own promise as a candidate to bring about an FOI law. If Congress stalled, he said, he would issue an executive order implementing the principle in all agencies and offices of the executive branch. The quick fulfillment of his promise will be a welcome demonstration of political will and leadership being applied with force and dispatch to a long-neglected issue central to the public interest. It will not cover the entire government machinery—Congress will still need to pass a proper FOI law—but it will be a considerable first step in his administration’s avowed campaign to stamp out corruption and provide greater transparency to day-to-day governance. At the very least, it will concretize the people’s basic right to learn how their government is being run—without threat of being harmed in any way for that right.
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