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May 31

The Explainer: Freedom to find out

That was from an informative video online, which shows the coverage and limitations, of the Freedom of Information Act in the United States.

The world’s developed democracies have found ways to guarantee as much information to citizens as possible, knowing full well that if we are to have a nation of laws and not of men, the individual convenience of officials has to be subordinated to the public good.

Tonight, we’ll look at corresponding efforts to ensure that you, too, enjoy a freedom the West takes for granted: The Freedom to Find Out.

I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.

 

I.

 

Last week we saw how British parliamentarians are under attack because of the release of official records about their allowances and tax exemptions. British politicians tried to keep this information from the public, but thanks to freedom of information laws, persistent digging by journalists finally exposed the real score.

Here at home, possession remains nine tenths of the law, and what is in official hands is often out of sight and out of mind. More often than not, we, the people, only have a vague idea of what information government has, and no idea at all, how to get that information or even whether we should.

The irony is, we may be a less transparent government, now, in an age of mass media, then we were, say half a century ago during the time of President Magsaysay, shown here in a Life Magazine photo with his wife.

For half a century before Magsaysay, and a quarter century after him, the public could keep track of what was going on in officialdom through a pretty boring, but democratically essential, publication called the Official Gazette. In it, you could see the President’s monthly, then weekly activities.

And even today, if you’re curious you can go back and look up the appointments and designations, the important letters, memoranda, and issuances, the court decisions and department orders, of our government up to the second administration of President Marcos.

But this fine tradition of official record keeping and even disclosure, came to an end with Martial Law, when President Marcos had to issue secret decrees and there was no longer a free press, an independent legislature or judiciary, much less effective public opinion, to value either a complete official record, or its regular publication.

By the time of the Edsa Revolution, the Official Gazette was, at best, only slightly useful; and since then, the public has no access to a really complete, reliable, catalog of the government’s actions, orders, and so forth.

Instead, we have a law that says that publication of laws and regulations in the papers is sufficient to validate a law; but once today’s paper wraps today’s fish, where can you go for a record? And who is to say everyone has access to papers today?

So the sad reality is that even as our government’s gotten bigger, and so many more decisions are being churned out everyday, we actually have less of a chance of keeping track of what’s going on –or these things being preserved for the record- than before martial law.

You can go to our government’s official portal, but it only focuses on the present government; try looking up anything before, and you won’t find it; and things you could easily look up prior to 1972 –a complete list of everyone given a job by the president, for one- is practically impossible, today.

Even the President’s own website contains incomplete information on the executive orders and proclamations, memoranda and directives of the President. Basically, it’s a major pain in rear to find out anything about anything.

What more if you want to find out something really earth-shaking. You’ll notice that many of the big issues in recent years have revolved around information. How some officials don’t want to release it, and hide behind the President’s skirts when asked.

As this photo by PJ Arca immortalized it, the stonewalling of officials asked inconvenient questions, has led to expressions of public indignation. But so what?

But as the President herself has often said, she is merely part of a degenerate political system, and the refusal of her underlings to release information isn’t anything new. Here’s a clip from the PCIJ, telling us the kinds information government finds it inconvenient to release:

And much as the President might want to answer public prayers for transparency, the PCIJ reports that the biggest of the big fish in the President’s official family are those usually unwilling to release information. Take a look:

And so, to every public prayer for relief, as priests like to tell us, sometimes the answer to a prayer is no. The PCI reports the usual reasons given by the usual suspects to refuse requests for information. Take a look:

Yesterday the Philippine Daily Inquirer editorial came out firmly in support of ongoing efforts to put an end to this frustrating state of affairs.

When we return… we’ll take a look at the proposed solution to official stonewalling.

 

II.

 

That was from a British news program showing the curiosity and the costs of freedom of information in the UK.

As I mentioned earlier, the Philippine Daily Inquirer has come out in favor of efforts to make official records available to the public.

There is a basis for this advocacy in the basic law, the Constitution, of our land. And it has to do with you, me, our government, and information, according to the Constitution.

Our Bill of Right says, “The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized. Access to official records, and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to limitations as may be provided by law.”

While Section Sec 28 of Article II of our Constitution’s Declaration of Principles and State Policies says “Subject to reasonable conditions prescribed by law, the State adopts and implements a policy of full public disclosure of all its transactions involving public interest.”

Now there’s an NGO called Action for Economic Reforms, which, together with many other concerned groups, feel that the time has come to put teeth into these constitutional injunctions.

Constituting the they’ve taken a cue from legislation passed in the West, such as in the USA and UK, and increasingly proposed and considered in other parts of the world, and have been lobbying for a Freedom of Information Act.

The proposed Freedom of Information Act will be up for consideration by the Senate plenary on Second Reading.

The  House of Representatives has already done its work, having approved its counterpart measure (House Bill 3732) as early as 12 May 2008.

On Second Reading in the Senate, the Committee on Public Information and Mass Media chaired by Senator  Alan Peter Cayetano will present to the senate plenary the consolidated/substituted version after undergoing committee  hearings and consultations.

Floor debates and amendments, if any, will follow, culminating in the Senators’ vote on the  Second Reading version of the bill. Now let’s take a look at eight key features of the proposed Freedom of Information Act.

First, It is expansive in scope. It covers all possible government agencies, whether they’re in executive, legislative or judicial branches, or independent constitutional bodies. And it covers all information regardless of the form or format in which they are stored.

Second,  It provides only a narrow list of clearly defined and reasonable exceptions.

Third,  It provides an opportunity and right enabling citizens to override an exception whenever public interest in the disclosure of information is greater.

Fourth,  It provides a clear, uniform and speedy procedure for public access to information.

Fifth,  It provides the mechanics for compulsory disclosure by government agencies of information on government transactions.

Sixth, It provides adequate and accessible remedies in cases where access to information is denied.

Seventh, It provides clear criminal liabilities for violation of the right to information.

And finally,  It spells out numerous mechanisms for the active promotion of openness in government.

If you’d like to find out more, do visit the website of Action for Economic Reforms, and click on the projects link.

Transparency Now believes that what happens to the bill at the Senate plenary will be a test of every Senator’s commitment to transparency, accountability,  democracy, and respect for human rights.

They believe this is a crucial juncture in our country’s strategic future, given the critical role of public access to information in combating corruption that has weighed down development, as well as its role in securing meaningful public participation to facilitate effective and responsive government policies.

We’ll be meeting one of the moving figures behind this effort, later tonight on the Explainer Dialogues. Do join us then.

 

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