Pulling teeth

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IF THERE’S anything every reformer or revolutionary knows, it is how changing anything in this country is as difficult as pulling teeth — or how comparable it is to getting former Armed Forces comptrollers to explain their wealth, or to even remember where their wives have been.

Even revolutionaries, to whom convincing existing governments of the urgency of change isn’t as important as getting ordinary folk to join them, have a difficult time recruiting into social movements, no matter how valid, even the poorest of the poor and the most disempowered citizen. Filipinos may complain and whine about how bad things are, but doing something about it isn’t among their strengths.

But if revolutionaries have such a bad enough time of it, some morph into the loudest voices for the status quo, reformers have it even worse. Reformers have to deal with governments, and therefore with a political class whose members, instead of openly declaring their opposition to change, will ardently declare their commitment to it and even to revolution, while actually doing everything in their power to prevent either.

Thus do the landlords in Congress swear to support land reform, for example, but have seen to it that what passes through every Congress since the 1950s is only the poor shadow rather than the reality of one. It explains why what’s been described as “the worst land tenancy system on the planet” persists despite the laws that have been passed supposedly to reform it. And as we all know by now, during its implementation by the very same elements of the ruling elite, even a good law can be made to work for the opposite of its intention.

It’s clear enough why your garden-variety politician is prepared to swear before all the saints in heaven how committed he is to change, but in practice will try to prevent it. Only the willfully blind or totally stupid will defend the injustice and mass misery that reign in the awful present. But those who benefit from it, which include the entire political class, will nevertheless do their all to sabotage every effort at reform.

Not surprisingly have the politicians and their creatures been acting true to form as far as the making of a Freedom of Information (FOI) act is concerned. The Constitution recognizes the right to information. Its exercise by citizens and state implementation of it is supported and mandated by Republic Act 6713 and Executive Order 89. RA 6713 compels government agencies to disclose information on government matters upon request, while EO 89 requires national government agencies to draft and implement procedures for both the public and government agencies to follow when there are requests for government information.

The Philippines is among the few countries in Asia without an FOI law (even Bangladesh and Pakistan have one). But among journalists if not among citizens, the consensus is that government information in the Philippines is generally accessible. The Philippines led other Southeast Asian countries in accessibility to information in a 2001 survey by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA). But some groups see the absence of an FOI law as an anomaly in this rumored democracy, thus the effort by civil society, journalists’ organizations and media advocacy groups to have an FOI law passed. The bad news is that they could be presiding over an effort that will make access to information more difficult than it is now, thanks to the usual elite aversion to change.

The effort has been ongoing for 14 years, since the 1990s when then Senator Francisco Tatad proposed an FOI bill that media advocacy and journalists’ groups rejected for its emphasis on what information would be exempt from coverage rather than what could be released to the press and the public. An FOI law could exempt enough information from public access to restrict the right to information instead of broadening it. Efforts to put together an FOI law acceptable to civil society, journalists’ and media advocacy groups have continued since, but almost every version has been frustrated by a Congress openly for it, but secretly leery of transparency.

Former House Speaker Prospero Nograles swore support for the consolidated FOI bill during the 14th Congress, as did a number of his fellow lawmakers, but killed the bill by absenting themselves from the House floor on the last day of last year’s sessions. While campaigning for the Presidency in 2010, Benigno Aquino III declared himself for it, but has since withdrawn his support. The Aquino government did not certify the bill as urgent when Congress convened last year, and has since proposed its own version, releasing the details on World Press Freedom Day (May 3), of all days.

A scan of that version reveals a focus on restrictions rather than the right to information itself. The administration bill expands the list of information exempted from public and media access. It removes the public interest override on executive (Presidential) privilege (in the Congressman Erin Tanada FOI bill — HB 53 — the exercise of the privilege is conditioned on the absence of pressing public interest). It creates a supposedly “independent” Information Commission, and removes criminal sanctions on government officials who violate the proposed law, subjecting them instead to unspecified administrative penalties.

The Information Commission is particularly problematic. The administration proposal makes the Commission, whose members would be appointed by the President, part of the Office of the President. The Commission has vast powers, among them that of ruling on the legitimacy of requests for information, imposing a temporary or permanent ban on the disclosure of information, holding any person in direct or indirect contempt, proposing legislation, and suggesting amendments to Philippine laws on access to information.

Limiting the accountability of government officials who violate the proposed law to administrative sanctions weakens it in favor of non-compliance. The Marcosist emphasis on national security exemptions provides government agencies a catch-all excuse for withholding information, given the broadness with which national security—undefined in the administration bill — could be interpreted. (The Tanada bill exempts information on “national defense” — a precise category that includes information on troop movements, defense plans, etc. compared to the much broader “national security” paradigm.)

If the administration bill is passed — and given the administration majority in Congress, it’s likely to pass — it will make access to information more problematic than it is today, putting it in the same category as those laws supposedly meant to broaden rights, but which actually restrict them. It would mean change for the worse rather than for the better. Administration sources say Mr. Aquino III fears the possibility of abuse — but isn’t the abuse of rights an acceptable and necessary risk in a regime that dares call itself democratic? Only the denial or absence of rights can guarantee that they will not be abused. Maybe that’s what, deep in its privileged heart, the Aquino administration wants.

(BusinessWorld)

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