Information denied

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ANY JOURNALIST in this country with some experience, and who has had to look for documentary sources from government when writing a news report, analysis or commentary, knows one thing: secrecy is not one of the bureaucracy’s strong suits.

It is possible, though not always easy, to get copies of the documents one needs, such as the Statements of Assets and Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) of government officials. In addition, there’s always someone in a government office eager to show how much he or she is in the know by providing reporters “inside information.” Of course journalists have to be wary of attempts to mislead them, thus the need, demanded by best practice anyway, to consult other sources for confirmation.

This has been happening for years without the benefit of a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. Thailand and Indonesia, where democratic institutions were restored only in 1992 and 1997, or years after EDSA, have FOI laws, and the Philippines none, but Philippine journalism is still noted for, among other distinctions, producing investigative reports that, if they have not all resulted in the fall of Presidents, have at least led to public awareness of how much certain officials have enriched themselves while in office, or who’s responsible for contracts disadvantageous to the government, etc.

That is why some journalists think that an FOI is not really all that necessary. Government officials should take heed of the statement by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism’s Malou Mangahas that FOI or no FOI, enterprising journalists can still get the goods on them. An FOI Act, however, could broaden the capacity of the citizenry to detect and monitor corruption in that it would enable citizens to more easily obtain government information vital to that task.

The killing of the FOI bill — nine years after its first version was introduced in Congress — through the simple expedient of adjournment for the alleged lack of a quorum, was unexpected, anyway. The Philippines’ lack of an FOI Act has long been regarded as antithetical to its democratic pretensions, and many thought that, at last, access to information would finally put an end to that seeming anomaly.

But the advocates of the bill in Congress and in the Access to Information Network (ATIN) had other reasons to believe that nine years after the first version of the bill was submitted to the House, the reconciled form of the Senate and House versions would finally guarantee not only journalists but also ordinary citizens access to government information. House Speaker Prospero Nograles had after all declared the FOI bill a priority the 14th Congress had to act upon before it adjourned. Malacanang too had announced that it was supporting the bill, and indirectly urged the House to pass it.

It now seems that Nograles and company were following a libretto — as in a bad play– intended not only to excuse themselves from responsibility for killing the bill, but also to lull its advocates into complacency. Evident last June 5 was Nograles’ determination to do everything to prevent the bill’s being discussed in the plenary session, contrary to his announced intention. And according to Nograles’ own partymate, Rep. Bienvenido Abante, a text message Nograles said he sent to congressmen did not urge them to attend the final session of the 14th Congress; it urged them not to. Most telling of all was that among the prominent absentees from last June 5’s House session were Negros Occidental Representative Ignacio (“Jose Pidal”) Arroyo, Camarines Sur Representative Diosdado (Dato) Arroyo, Pampanga Representative Juan Miguel Arroyo, and Party List representative Ma. Lourdes Arroyo.

Notwithstanding the misleading statements from Malacanang and Nograles, some FOI advocates thought that the House would act on the bill despite its implications on some of its members’ determination to keep information from the media and the public at large, since there were enough exceptions in the bill — particularly on information relating to national security and involving executive privilege — that could be interpreted in favor of any government agency determined to keep information from the public.

Some journalists had also expressed fears that once the exceptions are specified, they would make getting information more difficult. A freedom of information act could just as easily result in denying the public access to information. Even the best intentioned laws have often been distorted by the country’s so-called leaders in behalf of furthering contrary, self-serving goals. The Party List Act, for example, has enlarged elite rather than marginalized sectors’ representation in the House. The House could still have approved the FOI bill in full awareness of the fact that any law can be interpreted by those in power to suit their interests. Apparently, however, it couldn’t even tolerate the possibility that somewhere, somehow, a citizen could still get hold of information exposing official wrongdoing.

The bottom line in the FOI bill and every other initiative meant to broaden citizen involvement in governance is the persistence of government corruption and other misdeeds, which the guilty are determined to conceal. While the bill can be reintroduced in the next Congress, its advocates must be prepared for another prolonged campaign and/or the bill’s being mangled enough to make it self-defeating. But given the probable composition of the next Congress, in which not only Mrs. Arroyo but also a number of her allies will be members, they must also be prepared for its passage and for its actually functioning in practice as a barrier to access to government information.

The central lesson of June 5 is that there are enough corrupt officials in this country to make denial of access to information a de facto though unstated policy. No one should forget that despite the change in administration come July 1, many of those same officials, their numbers reinforced by the results of the congressional elections, will continue to conceal their misdeeds from the media and the public through whatever means.

(BusinessWorld)

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