Double talk

Standard

BENIGNO AQUINO III was in attendance at the launch of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in New York last September 20 where he also delivered the keynote address. Convened by the United States and Brazil, the OGP describes itself as “a new multilateral initiative to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.”

US President Barack Obama and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff are the co-chairs of OGP. The Philippines is one of only two Asian countries, the other being Indonesia, in the OGP steering committee, which has eight member countries: the U.S., Brazil, the UK, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines and South Africa. The Steering Committee members were supposedly selected on the bases of a country’s Fiscal Transparency, Citizen Access to Information, Disclosures Related to Elected Officials, and Citizen Engagement.

The Philippine inclusion in the OGP steering committee suggests that the Philippines meets the above criteria. But it’s a proposition that’s at least debatable, since the policies of concealment and secrecy on government matters, and on limiting citizen participation in governance of the Arroyo government, which was particularly adept in the arts of covering up a universe of wrongdoing, are basically still in place.

The charitable could argue that Mr. Aquino has been president for only a little more than a year, and while he has promised to pursue policies different from, indeed the opposite of, those of Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, turning the policies of nearly a decade around to assure maximum transparency and citizen engagement in governance requires both time and effort.

Charity aside, however, evidence is accumulating that the promises Mr. Aquino made in 2010 that excited many advocacy groups and individuals and mobilized support for his candidacy are likely to go the way of all campaign promises, meaning the netherworld of Erehwon.

The Philippines’ inclusion in the OGP steering committee and Mr. Aquino’s keynoting its New York launch is all of a piece with US President Obama’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize: it’s in recognition of promises made rather than achievement. Like a candidate for Miss Universe, Obama promised world peace in 2008, but escalated the drone attacks in Pakistan, ordered the US troop surge in Afghanistan, and in violation of Pakistani sovereignty and international law, had Osama bin Laden assassinated in that country.

Just as eloquent as Obama has been about peace while making war, Mr. Aquino has equally been voluble on transparency and access to information, while his government steadfastly refuses to prioritize any one of the freedom of information bills that have been filed in Congress, and attempts to craft its own version—which, as bad it is for citizen access to information, it didn’t introduce to Congress either.

While pretending to be one of the world’s exemplars in transparency and access to information, Mr. Aquino has caused the drafting of an FOI bill on which the fingerprints of the military and intelligence communities—agencies and institutions so hostile to transparency and human rights only a government that values secrecy more than transparency would bother to consult them—are evident in the bill’s focus on restricting rather than expanding access to information.

Finally fed up, the Right to Know Right Now coalition issued a statement last September 16 describing the Aquino FOI policy as so much double talk. The Aquino government claims to support access to information, said the coalition, but has done little about it, and even hindered the passage of an FOI bill, no matter how urgent the need for an FOI law has become.

Access to information is indeed more difficult today than ten years ago. The Supreme Court routinely denies requests for the Statements of Assets and Liabilities and Net worth (SALNs) of Justices. The Office of the Ombudsman limits the “legitimate” reasons for requests, requires them to be subscribed and sworn to, and makes denying requests for SALNs discretionary. The Civil Service Commission also requires requests for SALNs to be sworn to, imposes additional documentation support from requesting parties, and charges a fee of P200 per SALN copy.

All are contrary to the standards for access to government information mandated by Republic Act No. 6713 (the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees), but are nevertheless still in effect in a government that’s supposed to be transparent.

Mr. Aquino has backtracked so far on the FOI that his budget Secretary, Florencio Abad, could only promise this month to have an FOI law passed during Mr. Aquino’s term, (it ends in 2016) and to develop and implement an access to information mechanism applicable (only) to the executive department.

This is the same Abad who in 2010 said the budget for state universities and colleges (SUCs) had not been cut, but who at the same time asked for understanding as far as the cuts were concerned. Mr. Aquino himself announced in his 2010 State of the Nation Address that the cuts had indeed been made because he wants the SUCs to be financially independent and because of his government’s emphasis on development—which betrays a gross misunderstanding of the link between education and that mantra every government since that of Roxas has paid obeisance to, “development”.

The same Abad is currently saying the same thing: that his department has not cut the budgets of state universities and colleges, while declaring that increased funding won’t guarantee better education. He cited, of all things, the fact that the “underfunded” (his word) University of the Philippines has always been ahead of such well-endowed private universities as Ateneo, La Salle and UST in the ranking of the world’s best universities.

This bit of illogic aside, the same Abad also claims that the budget for the SUCs has not been cut, by pointing to the Commission on Higher Education’s (CHED) P500 million budget, but neglects to mention that the MOOE (maintenance, operating and other expenditures) for 45 SUCs has been cut by P251 million, which means a 50 percent cut in their MOOEs for some SUCs.

Meanwhile, from the equally brilliant talking heads of Malacanang came the advice, definitely unsolicited, that rather than protesting the Aquino government policy of “gradually reducing” (Aquino III’s words during his 2010 SONA) state subsidies to SUCs, students should just stay in their classrooms and study—which I suppose is another indication of this government’s commitment to “citizen engagement” in governance, but which of course qualifies as another case of double talk.

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