WITH ONLY six days of sessions left before the 15th Congress adjourns, and despite the optimism of Congressman Lorenzo (Erin) Tanada III, the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill was dead in the water as of this writing (January 24).
Although the House Public Information Committee chaired by Samar Representative Ben Evardone had seen the bill through, getting it into the plenary for discussion had so far been as problematic as the search for the Holy Grail.
None of the reasons were sublime. They ranged from the ridiculous to the fictitious. Evardone, whose committee had failed to hold only one meeting on the bill for about a year, said at one point that there was no room in the huge Batasan complex in which to discuss it again. When he did call a second Committee meeting and the bill was approved before Congress adjourned for the holidays last November, instead of forwarding it for plenary discussion, he called another meeting of the Committee so the members, 17 of whom had approved it, could sign the Committee report.
On January 21, the first session day after the holiday break, the bill, despite an assurance from House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, Jr. that it was one of that body’s priorities, was not scheduled for discussion in the plenary. On January 22, the bill was again shunted aside when the House plenary discussed a protest over the creation of the province of Davao Occidental rather than the FOI bill. Last Thursday, January 23, lack of quorum prevented its discussion.
President Benigno Aquino III, who during the 2010 campaign said he would support an FOI bill, has never included it among his legislative priorities. Neither did he certify it as urgent as the end of the 15th Congress approached, despite Malacanang’s inputs in the consolidated bill.
But even if by some minor miracle the bill is finally discussed by the House plenary, the fear is that some congressmen are ready with additions to the list of government-held information exempted from public disclosure that’s already in the bill, and that others will press for the inclusion of a “right of reply” rider, their focus being on restrictions on the right to information rather than its enhancement, supposedly to prevent abuse of the right.
In both cases, the focus has been on the media–on the fear that an FOI would arm the press, allegedly regarded as “too powerful” by, among other administration big shots, Mr. Aquino himself, would reveal information damaging to government officials. Malacanang, on the other hand, has its own fears, among them that a deluge of requests for information would immobilize the government, and that information it considers classified would be disclosed.
And yet an FOI act is primarily meant to provide the public access to government-held information vital to its concerns. Information is a democratic right in furtherance of transparency and accountability, which is why United Nations standards mandate that any list of information exempted from public disclosure be limited.
On the other hand, the Malacanang fear that government will be overwhelmed by demands for information is unfounded, as the experience of countries such as Thailand, which has had its Official Information Act since 1997, shows. Fears that national security information would be compromised are on the other hand addressed by Malacanang’s inclusion of a provision (Section 7a) giving the President both the power to declare which information may not be released for national security reasons, as well as when to lift the prohibition.
This provision is already a compromise, being in lieu of a “sunshine provision” that would have specified when a ban on the release of information critical to national security–say after 20 years–would be lifted and the information declassified. Indeed, the FOI bill cobbled together by the Technical Working Group out of various FOI bill versions contains other compromises with international standards, among them the provision exempting from public access inputs into policy discussions. Because of the broad definition of “national security” in the bill, and, even more critically, the continuing use of “national security” to suppress human rights, the inclusion of information pertaining to national security in the list of exemptions from disclosure has been, since 2011, resisted by many groups in the FOI coalition. Despite that problematic provision, the coalition agreed to support the bill, with reservations.
Some 15 years ago, when journalists and media advocacy groups began discussing the possibility of having an FOI law passed, some of those present during a round table discussion on the subject expressed an even graver reservation.
They feared that any attempt to put public access to information into law, given the composition of Congress, would lead to restricting rather than enhancing access. This fear was in the context of the sense that at least for the media, getting information on public issues was not a problem, as was in fact validated by a Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) study that found government-held information most accessible in the Philippines compared to other Southeast Asian Countries.
This perception changed during the problematic Arroyo presidency, when such information became difficult, in some cases even impossible, to obtain, and when a law assuring access to information became a compelling necessity.
As things have turned out, however, not only has an FOI law been difficult to get through the legislative mill, there are clear indications that, as feared then, if it were up to them–and it is–the alleged people’s representatives in Congress would pass an FOI law only if it would restrict rather than enhance public and media access to information out of fear of public exposure and demands for accountability.
The bottom line is that given a political environment in which access to information has become increasingly difficult, this country–its people most of all–need a Freedom of Information Act. But it doesn’t mean accepting any Act that certain congressmen who have something to hide, should the honorable members of Congress finally decide to discuss and pass one, wants. The country needs an authentic FOI Act, not just one that will serve congressmen and other officials, rather than the people, best.