Who Is Afraid Of A Freedom Of Information Law?

by Benjie Oliveros

A stronger push for the enactment into law of the Freedom of Information bill is a logical next step in the campaign against the pork barrel system, in particular, and against corruption, in general. In order to catch corrupt officials red-handed or, to put in a positive light, to have real transparency in government, the public should have access to government records indicating how government officials, in the three branches of government, spent the funds entrusted to them, voted and decided on measures and policies of national interest, and how they upheld or sold out the country’s interests when they engaged in negotiations with other parties. And these should be made available on demand and not preconditioned on the approval of the government officials concerned. Otherwise it defeats the purpose of asking for the government records in the first place.

This is the very purpose of a Freedom of Information law: to enable Filipinos to participate in governance by providing them with the information that would enable them not only to hold government officials to account but also to come up with and to articulate informed positions on issues that would have an impact on their lives.

President Benigno Aquino III landed a seat in Malacañang on a platform of change, on the promise of doing the opposite of what the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration did. The previous Arroyo administration was enmeshed in one corruption scandal after another, and was only able to deflect these by using the power of its numbers in Congress and in local government – which it was able to muster through the pork barrel, internal revenue allocations and bribes – and by claiming executive privilege.

“Kung walang korap, walang mahirap” (If there would be no corruption, there would be no poverty) and transparency in government, these were two of the major campaign promises of Benigno Aquino III.

Now it appears that President Aquino is backtracking on this promise. Malacañang’s position that it supports the Freedom of Information bill but would not certify it as urgent is much like saying it would not push for its enactment into law and the president might even veto it if the bill would not address the administration’s two concerns:

“Adequate safeguards against the release of information that involves, among others, national security and foreign relations, the privacy of citizens, the protection of trade secrets, the impartiality of verdicts and the administration of justice.”

“The need to look into the possible impact on the transaction volume of some agencies which, given the limited resources and specified timeframe within which to act on requests for information, might not be able to comply within the proposed period due to the volume of request.”

Just about anything could be included under matters of “national security and foreign relations, the privacy of citizens, the protection of trade secrets, the impartiality of verdicts and the administration of justice,” among others. If exceptions are made on the basis of all these, and the Aquino government would be determining which matters would fall under these categories, then the Freedom of Information bill that would incorporate these exceptions would not only defeat the purpose of passing such bill, it would even restrict access to, rather than make available, government records.

The concern regarding the volume of transactions shows that the Aquino administration considers requests for records as added work or burden instead of its responsibility to its citizens.

The Aquino government’s claim that “The objectives of a Freedom of Information bill have been achieved as a result of the President’s unwavering campaign for transparency and accountability in the bureaucracy” should be taken with a grain of salt. While it is true that the president has been using every opportunity to expose the corrupt acts of officials of the previous administration, he has summarily dismissed issues involving his official family such as that involving former undersecretary of local government Rico Puno, Land Transportation chief Virginia Torres, and recently, Local Government Sec. Mar Roxas.

The president lashed out at the Bureau of Immigration, National Irrigation Administration, the Bureau of Customs and the Civil Service Commission during his fourth state of the nation address, but that has been the last the public heard of it. What were the cases he was referring to? Who were involved? Have charges against those being accused of corruption been filed?

When Malacañang, in justifying the ‘surrender’ of Janet Lim-Napoles to the president instead of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), which is handling the case, accused the said agency of untrustworthiness, its director resigned because of the sweeping generalization. President Aquino and the Justice Secretary Leila De Lima had to run after the director to convince him not to resign, but to no avail. And that was also the last time the public heard about the “untrustworthiness case” within the NBI. The public was never informed of the basis for such “untrustworthiness,” its roots, the people involved and what is being done about it.

If the the Aquino administration is the model of transparency, why is the public not being informed about the details of the negotiations between the Philippine and US governments on a supposed framework agreement for the increased presence of US troops? What exactly would be contained in the proposed framework agreement? What have been the points of agreement and disagreement? What were the positions and counter-positions of both panels? What would be its implications on the country and the Filipino people? Are documents pertaining to the negotiations readily available for public scrutiny? All the public has been told are the Aquino government’s desire to increase the rotational presence of US troops in the country; its assurances that what would be agreed upon would be within the framework of the Constitution and the Visiting Forces Agreement; there would no facilities exclusive to US troops; and recently, that the government would agree to the construction of US military facilities for as long as the Armed Forces of the Philippines gives the go signal and that these would be turned over to the government after the joint military exercises.

The Aquino administration could not claim that it has been sufficiently transparent and that the enactment of a Freedom of Information bill into law has been rendered unnecessary.

If it wants to match its rhetoric with action, it should genuinely run after corrupt officials not only from the previous administration but also those involving the current administration and ruling coalition, and it should open the records of government to the public by enacting an unadulterated Freedom of Information bill into law.

As it is wont to say whenever it rams through an oppressive law, if you have nothing to hide, there is no reason to worry or be afraid. But this time, this is not about an oppressive law but about the people’s right. (bulatlat.com)

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