FOI: Aquino’s Legacy?

Prof. Dindo Manhit, President at the Stratbase ADR Institute

While he endorsed the bill the following day, a notable promise in President Benigno Aquino III’s State of the Nation Address was on the pending Freedom of Information Bill (FOI). In 2010, it was Aquino’s strong anti-corruption message that propelled him to the presidency, and one of his campaign promises was to push for this much-delayed legislation.

By no means is FOI a NEW phenomenon.

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As a constitutional right, it has been guaranteed as early as 1973. Seemingly inadequate and with the abuses under Martial Law fresh on their minds, the framers of the 1987 charter expanded it still to include research data used as basis for policy development. The spirit of this insistence is clear: excesses in government thrive in secrecy, and a free flow of information is thus seen as a key deterrent.

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Despite the absence of an enabling law, the Supreme Court had ruled many times that the constitutional mandate is enforceable. For its part, the Aquino administration has made strides in promoting transparency in government by proactively making public such information as details of the budget and government projects. The senate has approved the bill on third reading, waiting for their counterparts in the lower house to catch up.

The experience of other countries with similar FOI legislation are overwhelmingly positive, and often they are symptomatic of a functioning democracy. For one, it connotes an overall culture and policy of transparency and openness. With information freely available, both citizens and the media can judiciously safeguard government processes, guaranteeing against any forms of abuse. Over time, the hope is for this tendency to evolve into a culture.

Otherwise, we have seen throughout history the dangers of a government with a policy of withholding information. From presidents to senators to chief justices and election supervisors,  from rigged biddings to short-changed projects, cases of corruption, patronage, and influence peddling go unchecked without FOI, often at the expense of taxpayers’ money and welfare.

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In today’s world, information is power. An informed citizenry can be expected to make better decisions and hold their officials more accountable. FOI will enable the public to know where their money is being spent, and how. Processes like procurement will undergo tougher scrutiny, making it more difficult for unscrupulous parties to offer bribes or simply influence government decisions.

Several Civil Society groups have been actively campaigning for the immediate passage of the FOI bill. The main merits for passing the FOI bill was clearly stated by Democracy Watch in their online petition in Change.org

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_“The Million People March has sparked a new spirit of citizen led democratic initiatives that has exposed high level corruption that has stolen billions of pesos of the people’s money. _

As we continue to see daily manifestations of a deeply rooted system of corruption, we call on you to join this initiative to campaign for meaningful government reforms by pushing our legislators to pass the Freedom of Information law that will:

• Enable its citizens to access information relative to the transactions and dealings of the government that are vested with public interest. 

• Ensure transparency in all dealings of the government except those that concern national security or those done in executive session

• Regulate access to information without curtailing the civil and political rights of the Filipino People.

• Institutionalize reforms particularly in our procurement system”

With elections coming up in less than a year, there is no guarantee that the next president will similarly be sympathetic to the advocates of FOI. Grace Poe, a presumptive candidate, is one proponent of the pending bill, and Mar Roxas, endorsed by Aquino, will most likely support it as well. With PNoy’s presidential endorsement politicians who will still choose to oppose the bill will be perceived as one of the corrupt that need to be cleansed in the 2016 elections.

 

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