Matching Standards

by Juan L. Mercado

“Focus your light,“ grizzled editors drill into young reporters. “Then, watch how the cockroaches skitter. That could well be your story. ”

This axiom unreels in  the impeachment  of Supreme Court chief justice  Renato Corona, Mondays to Thursdays, starting at two p.m. Roaches scrammed from  gap-studded  Statements of Assets and Liability, glitzy condos to padded bank accounts. They show  that information ushers in transparency, the anchor of good governance.

“The Right to Know,  Right Now! Coalition” welcomed  President Benigno Aquino’s delayed  green light for the -snarled Freedom of Information bill.. FOI  was “mugged by roll call” at the 14th Congress.

“They’re  not all saints who use holy water.” Congressmen pledged to ratify the FOI bill, When the vote was called, only 128 House members showed up. That’s seven short of the 135 needed in a House of 268 members.

All Arroyos — Diosdado,  Maria Lourdes, Juan Miguel and the late Ignacio were “no-shows”:  Allies like Jesus Crispin Remulla; Pastor Alcover, Jovito Palparan (now a fugitive) vanished.  

Allow us to check  members, requested  Reps. Erin Tanada, Joel Villanueva, Del De Guzman, Risa Hontiveros, Walden Bello and Satur Ocampo.  Speaker Prospero Nograles Pedro Romualdo (Camiguin) and allies instead gaveled FOI into the archives.

“In doing so, they built another “firewall” for the anticipated- exposes of sleaze against their patron: Gloria Macapagal Arroyo”, Viewpoint ( PDI/ Aug. 7, 2010)  noted then. “It mattered little that they fractured the Constitutional directive for transparency”.

Article III Section 7 of the Constitution provides for the  citizen’s right to public information in “state policy of full disclosure of transactions involving public interest.”  

In his first State of the Nation address, however, PNoy didn’t give a line about retrieving the gutted FOI measure. Thereafter, he expressed reservations about the measure.

“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.

“Yet, no one beyond P-Noy’s innermost circle seems to know the real reason for the omission…One can only hope it’s not an ominous sign that enemies of transparency are gaining some headway in the new leadership.”

Those jitters were widely shared by the press.  They persisted until this month — when the President finally  endorsed an FOI draft bill.   

This “clears the way for the long-overdue passage of the FOI law,” the press coalition said. ”We acknowledge  efforts done by reformers in the executive branch, namely Budget and Management secretary “Butch” Abad and  Information undersecretary Manuel Quezon III.

If passed in its latest form, the FOI bill will adopt a uniform speedy procedure for people’s access to information. It narrows wide wiggle room “for administrative avoidance of disclosing information under current laws.

The bill “frees the broadest amount of non-sensitive information to easy and effective access for the everyday needs of citizens” who avail of public services.

As drafted, the bill pegs limits on exceptions to release of sensitive information. It  shifts to government  the burden of proving an exception. Such exclusion “must be strictly construed”.  They may not be used to cover-up crime.

The  measure identifies “documents of high public interest that  must be disclosed without need of request” These would include Statements of  Assets and Liabilities, often very difficult to access.

Various mechanisms to facilitate access of information are proposed. New provisions for hefty penalties are tacked on.

Despite these gains, “there will be continuing challenges that will have to be fought” if the bill  is passed. “One is the struggle against abuse of broadening national security exceptions,  under Malacañang amendments.

Nonetheless, the press coalition said it secured presidential  repeal of Memorandum Circular 78. This 14 August 1964 guideline, in use until recently,  classifies of sensitive documents into top secret, secret, confidential, and restricted.

“MC 78 is overbroad,”  the press group added.  “(It) grants authority to classify to almost all government officials. Heads of departments have the authority to classify information as top secret or secret. (That) authority may be delegated. “For confidential and restricted matter, any officer is authorized to make such classifications.

“Information that may be classified under MC 78 is practically unlimited. Top secret matter include “major governmental projects”. Confidential matter need not involve matters of national security. (They) include even  “matters as would cause administrative embarrassment”. Restricted matter  include matters vaguely defined as “requiring special protection”.

“Section 6 (a) of  the bill authorizes President to issue an executive order providing new classification guidelines.  “What is left is the task of obtaining a reasonable definition and scope of national security”.

“We are made wise, not by our recollection of the past, but by the responsibilities for the future,” George Bernard Shaw cautions.  What is the task of  today’s journalists — many of them, women, young and  well-educated  elders — after the FOI law gets on the law books.

It is to match the broad freedoms granted with higher standards of competence and responsibility, we suggest. These help create an atmosphere of relevant reporting from a plurality of voices.. “Deep calls unto deep,” the Psalmist writes.

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