Information control

CONTROLLING THE flow of information—deciding what citizens are told, how it’s presented to them and even determining what they should and shouldn’t know—has always been a critical concern among the powerful. Whether in the Philippines, its neighbors, or in the most backward or most developed countries of the world, the kind of information that reaches citizens is crucial to the outcome of elections, the making of the policies that decide the quality of life of millions, the staying power of dictators, and even the prospects for war or peace.

The entire planet is inundated with tsunamis of information daily, thanks to the international media organizations’ relentless transmission of reports, commentary and images via cable, print and the Internet. The swift advance of information and communication technology has also made national borders of no consequence to filtering information. At the national level, radio, TV and print assail the senses daily in most countries including those yet to achieve the same level of development as Japan and most Western nations.

But only at first blush does the control of information seem futile. For all the billions of characters, bytes and pixels they transmit daily, the world’s biggest media conglomerates, thanks to the incessant mergers and acquisitions that have made them a mere handful (seven media conglomerates have a global monopoly over news and entertainment), share a homogenous view of the world. Built into the international media system is a common perspective rooted in the culture and politics of the handful of Western countries where the global media organizations had their origins. This perspective is inevitably, and often unknowingly, assimilated by the broadcasters, reporters, and commentators in the countries where the international corporate media have a monopoly over the transmission of news and entertainment from the rest of the world.

A homogenous view of the world has taken root in most countries, where how events in the Middle East, Asia, the Americas, Africa and anywhere else are perceived is crucial to the making of public opinion. The consequence is the absorption on a nearly universal scale of values and ideas that taken together constitute the most formidable obstacle to change even in the most desperate of circumstances, human consciousness and perception being a critical factor in the transformation of nations and the world.

The Philippines’ recent experience with two bills— one already a law, the constitutionality of which will be debated in the Supreme Court in January, the other practically on its last gasps in the 15th Congress—is instructive. The control of information—what and how much citizens need to learn about themselves, their governance, and the rest of their society—is basically what drove the almost immediate passage of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, and what has prevented the Freedom of Information bill, after nearly two decades, from being passed.

The FOI bill, despite nearly two decades of debate and discussion, and, during the Aquino III administration, the drafting of at least three versions, has aroused the most violent opposition in the House of Representatives. And yet, an FOI Act has been in place in Thailand for years. Even Pakistan has one. It is not particularly revolutionary, and an FOI act should have long ago been part of the country’s laws.

The version of the Freedom of Information bill that’s still up for discussion in the House plenary even falls below the standards to which the United Nations encourages compliance. It enshrines executive privilege in law, exempts from public access information on “national security”—a particularly contentious phrase in this country because of its experience with authoritarian rule— and leaves it to the President to declare as an exception any information that in his opinion falls under that category.

As passed by the House Committee on Public Information, the FOI bill doesn’t have the “sunshine provision” that would automatically make information exempt from public scrutiny available after a specific period. Instead, the bill leaves such a declaration to the President’s discretion. Inputs in discussions over policy are also exempt from disclosure, thus preventing citizens from participation in the making of public policy.

Despite these provisions that actually favor State secrecy, resistance to the FOI bill remains strong in the House of Representatives, and its fate as of this writing (December 20) was still uncertain, since Congress adjourns for the holiday recess today, December 21. The scope and power of the opposition to it is indicative of the mindset among the country’s power elite that regards information as dangerous, and looks at the citizenry as immature, of limited capacity for discernment, or likely to abuse its own freedoms to be worthy of the information that’s readily available to the powerful and privileged. For all the ringing rhetoric, however, the very bottom line is that Philippine officialdom has too many secrets it would rather not be made public.

The fear of the citizenry is evident in the severe restrictions the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 puts in place against those who regularly use the Internet to report and comment on issues of public concern—most of them ordinary citizens who have discovered the empowering character of the new media. The Act punishes free expression by ordinary citizens even more harshly than the 82-year old libel law does professional journalists.

To what end this enthusiasm for curtailing free expression and this resistance to access to information? In the hostility to an FOI act is not only the fear that the media would be even more powerful. Implicit in that fear is fear of citizen empowerment as well. What makes governments suspicious of the press is that it can—and it is no more than a possibility—provide the public with, among others, the information it needs on the problems and issues of governance and society, what they mean, and, either directly or indirectly, what the possible solutions are. The media by themselves have no power beyond shaping the consciousness of their audiences, the power to change things being ultimately resident in the citizenry.

Change in the country of our sorrows is possible only when the realities of poverty and injustice are in conjunction with citizen consciousness of the roots and causes of those realities. It’s an awareness that could lead to the exploration of possible solutions. The Philippine experience demonstrates that information is crucial in the shaping of the predisposition for change and citizen openness to the means as to how it may be achieved. It is the absence among the people of meaningful information that has made change of any kind in the Philippines problematic. It is the instinct to keep things as they are that makes control of information so crucial to the Philippine elite.

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