Obsolete Reform Tool?

by Juan L. Mercado

To jump-start  the long-stalled  Freedom of  Information bill,  journalists  designated  August  15  as “FOI  Day”. They  “pledged to publish and upload  a  pooled editorial”  to  prod  a skittish  House of  Representatives to act. Ma. Ceres Doyo  ran  the text  in her Inquirer column titled: “Push, pass the FOI  act now!”

The first-ever “pooled editorial”, in local journalism, skewered  “Compartmentalized Justice” of  the then decaying “New Society.”  All  dailies ran it  on the same day.  Radio stations broadcast  the text, along with the new kid on the block then: TV news programs. President  Ferdinand Marcos went ballistic.

At  the Philippine Press  Institute, we rechecked  drafts that  publishers blue-penciled.  We were a  wet-behind-the-ears journalist then. Our job included ensuring  the pooled editorial  clattered out on  teletypes. The editorial  set a  precedent.  As  novice,  the  innovation didn’t  register on  us then.

Marcos calibrated his reaction.  Malacanang  phone calls to went to Institute members with less grit than Joaquin “Chino”  Roces . When  a  follow-up  pooled editorial was proposed,  the now defunct  Evening News hastily  bailed out.  Others waffled. Thus, a second pooled editorial never materialized.

Marcos got his  pound of  flesh under Proclamation 1081. He  jailed Roces and Manila Chronicle publisher Eugenio Lopez. He  padlocked the TimesPhilippines Free Press, and, ironically  even papers that  buckled to accommodate him. In between, Marcos  enticed publishers into his camp.

At an Institute meeting in the old Capitol Publishing compound, Manila Bulletin’s Hans Menzi revealed  he’d sign on as  Marcos’  senior military aide. There was stunned silence. In the presiding officer’s chair,  then UP president Carlos P.  Romulo shifted uneasily.  Chino Roces twirled his cigar.  Philippine News Service’s Romeo Abundo gagged on his  coffee.

“If you were publishing laundry lists, I’d have no objections,” the courtly Don Ramon Roces  finally said. ”But  Hans, my  friend — you’re publishing a newspaper.”  The rest is now history, including  the  November 2005  Supreme Court decision that declared:  198,052  Manila Bulletin shares were the  “ill-gotten wealth of the defendant Marcos spouses.”

Technology, ownership shifts  to cyberspace altered the “pooled editorial”. Sun Star for example, periodically runs a “pooled editorial” in it’s syndicated network members.  Would metropolitan  publishers of  varying  persuasions and economic interests agree on a pool?  Twitter and Facebook impinge meanwhile  on newsrooms .  Perhaps, journalism  schools can tell us if  this an  outdated  “measure of last resort”?

The medium is not the message, as today’s controversy over an FOI  shows. Information ushers in transparency, the anchor of good governance. Section 7 of the Constitution provides for the citizen’s right to public information. State policy seeks full disclosure of transactions involving public interest.

After hemming and hawing for months, President  Aquino — who pledged in his campaign to press for an FOI  bill — gave the green light for the measure in January. `“We acknowledge efforts by reformers in the executive branch, namely Budget Secretary Florencio ‘Butch’ Abad and Information Undersecretary Manuel L. Quezon III,   “The Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition” said.

That  sense of relief  came from being scalded by  experience.  Pro Macapagal-Arroyo congressmen sabotaged FOI  in the closing day of the 14th Congress. Prospero Nograles (Davao) and Pedro Romualdo (Camiguin) led a coalition that killed FOI,  which needed merely a few minutes for ratification. They used the old dodge of questioning the quorum.

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.

The day after the Lower House salvaged the bill,   President Aquino  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.

That did not come to pass. The 15th  Congress is now  meandering to a close.  Were  those  January  well-wishes premature?  Yes, says  the proposed “pooled editorial” draft.

The Right to Know  coalition prodded Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone  to “transform rhetoric into reality.” The Eastern Samar congressmen, who preens of his earlier incarnation as a journalist, heads the House committee on public information. He  failed to “harmonize 15 versions of  FOI bill  in his committee.

After State-of-the-Nation address, Evardone promised, he’d  put the FOI bill “in the front burner”. Well, SONA  3 has  come —  and gone. Evardone’s  pledge hasn’t been redeemed.

“Executive agencies have become more transparent anyway”, other spokesman insist. The Department for Budget and Management, under Secretary Florencio “Butch”  Abad, uploads unprecedented amounts of public fund data on, from pork barrel to  projects.

These welcome reforms, need to be institutionalized. Benigno Aquino III will not be president forever. The 16th  President (It does not have to be Jejomar Binay) can scrap those reform with the stroke of a pen.

“Media’s power is frail. Without the people’s support, it can be shut off with the ease of turning a light switch’,  Corazon Aquino always warned.

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