Justified Jitters?

by Juan L. Mercado

Is the press getting jittery over President Benigno Aquino’s silence, so far, on pushing for a Freedom of Information ( FOI) bill?  In his first State of the Nation address, he didn’t spare even a line about retrieving the gutted FOI measure.

Pro Macapagal-Arroyo  congressmen  sabotaged  the measure in the closing day of the 14th Congress. Among these were Prospero Nograles (Davao) and Pedro Romualdo (Camiguin ),  They killed the measure – which needed merely a few minutes for ratification – by the old dodge of questioning the quorum.

“Many of us are puzzled,”  Inquirer columnist Cielito Habito wrote. “This (is) an uncharacteristic omission” by the  President.”  By instinct, track record and policy, P-Noy supports transparency.

The day after the Lower House salvaged  the bill, the President pledged to fast track FOI in the current Congress.  Rep. Lorenzo “Erin” Tanada (4th District, Quezon ) predicted early approval of  a reintroduced  measure. That’d  make FOI the “very first legacy” of the 15th Congress under the Aquino III administration.

If this new bid 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.

In addition, government research data,  used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen.” That will be  subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.”

So, why do the nervous ticks persist?

“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 —  which many journalists share.  We’ve been scalded by backers of then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. They pledged 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. After the “slaughter”,  journalists  tracked  text messages from the House leadership to stay away. Thus, 140 truants strangled FOI.

Rev.  Broderick Pabillo, who chairs the Catholic Bishops Commission on social action, fumed:  “Members of Congress again failed to put the public interest ahead of their own in setting aside the FOI bill.”

Skim  the the list of 140 congressmen who scalped  the FOI bill by absence. 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.

So did congressmen who whitewashed the World Bank road bidding scandal: Reps. Elpidio Bragaza and Roger Mercado. Malalcanang allies Jesus Crispin Remulla; Pastor Alcover, Jovito Palparan vanished.

“Slaughter by roll call is a hoary parliamentary swindle,” this column recalled.. “Rep. Rolando Zamora and barkadas scrammed when the impeachment vote against Comelec: Luzviminda Tantangco came up. Zamora vanished this time too.”

In doing so, they built another “firewall” for the anticipated — nowq coming to pass — exposes of sleaze against their  patron: Gloria Macapagal  Arroyo  It mattered  little that they fractured the Constitutional directive for transparency.

Article III Section 7 of the Constitution mandates transparency. The citizen’s right to public information is recognized in “state policy of full disclosure of transactions involving public interest. The FOI bill would implement that policy.

In newsrooms, editors tell reporters: “Focus your light and watch the cockroaches scamper.” Exposes aborted the $330 million  ZTE broadband scam, the Joc-Joc Bolante fertilizer scam, over-importation  of rice, and  diversion of calamity funds to Pampanga’s second district, among others.

World Bank researchers found that in Uganda only 13% of allocations reached schools. After the Kampala government published allocations, “the leakage decreased dramatically. “Four years later, 90 percent of that money reached the schools. The  newspaper information campaign was credited for the reforms,”New York Times reported.

“A spoonful of transparency is good,” writes the 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”.

Another study found that information disclosure, in newspapers, were effective in communities “that were (a) literate and (b) assertive enough to act when abuse was revealed…Transparency by itself is insufficient if there is no opportunity for collective action.”

That has changed radically with with Internet, Twitter, Facebook and other social media.

Over 10 years, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism  documented 14 major instances where “flimsy excuses” from 12 national agencies met requests for information. PCIJ waits from 56 days to six months to get any response on requests for information, say on Statement of Assets and Liabilities.

Journalists in the provinces are given the run around. Typically, they’re backed  to  distant national agencies to obtain public documents.

Ordinary citizens run through a tougher wringer. Most are poor. They’re “unable to claim their rights simply because they don’t know how, and what these are, to begin with.”  An FOI would be of help.

Our gut feeling is President Aquino will deliver. The 15th  Congress, after all,  has just started it’s sessions. But P-Noy  should heed why some journalists mutter with T.S. Eliot: :”My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad.”

(Email: juanlmercado@gmail.com)

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