Cat On A Hot Stove

by Juan L. Mercado

You  can  not make a cat  sit  twice on a hot stove.”  Pro Macapagal-Arroyo  congressmen  earlier  scalded the  press by  sabotaging  the Freedom of Information  bill.  Scorched  journalists today  are  getting edgy.

P-Noy  skipped FOI  in his State of the Nation address. Since then, he has been silent in retrieving the measure. Reps. Prospero Nograles (Davao),  Pedro Romualdo (Camiguin) and  soulmates shredded the measure before Congress adjourned.

“We are disappointed,” National Union of Journalists’ Nestor Burgos wrote. FOI would have “ensured transparency of government transactions. (But it ) was shamefully shelved.”

As the King of Siam told  Anna: “Et  is  a “puzzlement.”  By instinct, track record   and policy, P-Noy  invariably  backed transparency, .“This (is) an  uncharacteristic omission” by the  President,”  Inquirer columnist Cielito Habito fretted. .”Many of us  are  puzzled.”

Day after solons bushwhacked FOI, the President pledged  he’d  fast track FOI in the 15th  Congress. eps. Lorenzo “Erin” Tanada (Quezon) and Rachel del Mar (Cebu) led a  ong  queue of those who refilled the bill. 

Look again.  Partisans,  who jerry-rigged  the “lack of quorum”  and  killed the bill, now parade as FOI backers. They bolted  even before Smartmatic  computers confirmed  P-Noy’s landslide victory. Mabilis pa  sa linitk, says  my barber. (“Faster than lightning.”)

Tanada foresees early approval of a reintroduced measure. The numbers are  there.  In the Senate, Juan Ponce Enrile, Joker Arroyo, Loren Legarda  backed this measure. They’ll do so again.  That’d  make FOI the “very first legacy” of Congress under  Aquino III, Tanada predicts..

Over 85  countries  have FOI laws.  Sweden’s  “Freedom of the Press Act” of  1766 is the world’s first.  All 50 states of the  U.S. have “sunshine laws” that buttress the nation’s Freedom of  Information Act.

Drafters of the  1987  Constitution —  among them Cecilia Munoz Palma, Joaquin Bernas, Christian Monsod and Hilario Davide —  wrote in  right to access of information. The Marcos dictatorship’s  censors traumatized  many of  the delegates.

Article III Section 7 of the Constitution, therefore, mandates transparency. The citizen’s right to public information is recognized in “state policy of full disclosure of transactions involving public interest.”

If this new FOI succeeds,  mechanisms would give citizens “access to official records, documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decision.” That’d cover the politically volatile area of tax money.

But. constitutional provisions for FOI work only if specific support laws are approved.  And less-than-angelic legislators, since 1987, found it lucrative to  strangle the bill. This  year, they found  an additional reason: the firestorm of  accusations that erupted against Gloria Macapagal Arroyo noon of June 30.

Ms Arroyo lost presidential immunity  after P-Noy  took his oath office.. So, Nograles et al obliged her with a “firewall”  by killing the FOI bill.  That  adds  to “firewalls”: in a subservient Ombudsman, an Arroyo Supreme Court and scores of midnight appointees.

“The spirit of liberty lies in the hearts of men and women;”  Justice Learned Hand cautioned in 1994. “When it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it. While it lies there, it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.”

Justice Hand’s insight explain today’s nervous ticks.   “No one beyond P-Noy’s innermost circle seems to know the real reason” for the omission” , Habito frets “One can only hope it’s not an ominous sign that  enemies of transparency are gaining some headway in the new leadership.”

There. See. That’s the reason for Habito’s jitters. Arroyo’s crew vowed to support the FOI measure. But we forgot that  “they’re are not all saints who use holy water.”

When push came to shove, they scrammed. Only 128 House members showed up   —  seven short of the 135 needed in a House of 268 members.

The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), for example, published text messages sent by the House leadership: “Given “the possible adverse impact of the pending FOI bill…and rally of leftist groups… you may wish to join the many congressmen of various political parties who have decided not to attend  the last session of the House,” the message read

Thus, 140 truants strangled FOI.  “Slaughter by roll call is a hoary parliamentary swindle,” Viewpoint  recalled.. Skim  the the list of 140 truants. It documents betrayal.   All the Arroyos, for  example,  were “no-shows”: Diosdado M. Arroyo; Ignacio T. Arroyo; Maria Lourdes Arroyo and Juan Miguel Macapagal Arroyo.

Journalists have their horror stories of how government buries information. PCIJ waits from 56 days to six months to get any response on requests for information. Only after Ms Arroyo stepped down did information on diversion of calamity funds to Pampanga’s second district surface.

Provincial newsmen are shunted aside. And citizens request for information are shrugged off.

“A spoonful of transparency is good,” writes New York  Times Laura Freschi. “But it is not a cure all.” FOIs  can  act as a “pressure valve” on the corrupt  “without posing a serious challenge to the system”. Transparency is insufficient if there is no opportunity for communities to take collective action.”

President Aquino  will deliver on FOI, our “crystal bowl” says   The 15th Congress, after all,  just started   sessions.  But P-Noy  should heed why some journalists fidget. “Once burned, twice shy,” our grandmother used to say.

(Email: juanlmercado@gmail.com)

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