Bantay FOI! Sulong FOI!

We are organizations and individuals from various sectors of Philippine society who are advocates of freedom of information, a right guaranteed by our Constitution.

Today we launch Bantay FOI! Sulong FOI!, the new phase of our campaign to coincide with the start of the second regular session of the 15th Congress. We also launch the Bantay FOI! Sulong FOI! online network and database, which will serve as our campaign news and outreach platform.

Three key activities define Bantay FOI! Sulong FOI!:

  • First, it demonstrates our relentless push for the passage of the long-awaited Freedom of Information (FOI) law in the Philippines.
  • Second, it involves close monitoring by the citizens and civil society groups of how President Aquino and the leaders of Congress will respond to the people’s clamor for an FOI law.
  • Third, it underpins the multiple, parallel actions and initiatives that we continue to launch to exact greater transparency and responsive public service from all government agencies.

Why FOI?

Section 7 of our Bill of Rights of the Constitution has been upheld by the Supreme Court to be enforceable even without an implementing law. However, in practice, many government agencies and officials take only token action on citizens’ requests for information and documents. All too often, they have resorted to routine rebuffs of the people’s right to information, absent the necessary substantive and procedural details that only Congress can provide. Similarly, the state policy of full disclosure of all transactions involving public interest under Article II, Section 28 of the Constitution, requires an enabling mechanism.

Now more than ever, with the Aquino Administration committing to uphold transparency and good governance in all its affairs, we need an FOI law.

By the precept “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap,” President Aquino has built his government.

By the precept “Kung walang FOI, dadami ang corrupt, dadami ang mahirap,” we now scale up our campaign.

Now more than ever, we need an FOI law:

  • To provide uniform and definite procedures for dealing with requests for information;
  • To clearly define exceptions;
  • To secure for us effective remedies in cases of denial of access;
  • To require the disclosure of important government transactions without need of request; and
  • To impose criminal and administrative sanctions for violation of our right to information.

Now more than ever, we need an FOI law to institutionalize transparency as the mandatory norm, rather than a discretionary matter, for all elective and appointive officials, across all branches of government.

With an FOI law, we envision an empowered and vigilant citizenry that will make full and responsible use of the right to information to secure government services, exact accountability from government officials in the use of public funds and the exercise of governmental powers, and facilitate the effective exercise of related rights of citizenship such as participation in policy-making and governance.

Coming from the tragic fate suffered by the FOI bill at the House of Representatives in the 14th Congress, for a while we looked to the new Aquino administration with hope that soon our nation will finally have an FOI law. After all, an FOI law is an indispensable foundation for the fulfillment of his administration’s promise of a righteous government. After all, weeks after his victory as the nation’s 15th President, he had promised in no uncertain terms that he will see after its passage.

Our hopes were dashed, however, when, eight months into his administration during the first Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC), the President failed to enroll the FOI bill among his priority legislative measures.

Yet still we engaged the Executive branch, particularly the President’s Communications Group and Budget and Management Secretary Florencio ‘Butch’ Abad, in constructive dialogue. Indeed, while the bill covers all branches and levels of government, the effective implementation of an FOI law requires a committed Executive branch as it is the biggest generator and custodian of information.

The process of dialogue with the Executive, in close coordination with Deputy Speaker Lorenzo “Erin” R. Tañada III as the bill’s lead champion in Congress and the President’s fellow stalwart in the ruling Liberal Party, has yielded both encouraging and disappointing results.

The encouraging result: We have agreed on a number of revisions to the FOI bill that carefully balances the people’s right to access information with the concerns supposedly expressed by the President and some of his Cabinet secretaries.

The disappointing result: To this day, with only a week to go before Mr. Aquino’s second State-of-the-Nation Address, this redrafted bill has not been discussed with, nor approved by, the President. According to Cabinet members, the FOI bill might not merit special mention in the SONA. By all indications, the FOI bill is stuck in Executive inertia.

To breathe life into the bill, Cabinet members say that FOI advocates would do well to roll out two initiatives: One, mount an even more vigorous public advocacy campaign. And two, prod parties deemed to be influential on the President to prod him to put the FOI bill on fast-track mode. These influential parties supposedly include some business leaders, some Church leaders, and the donor community.

In truth, if only Malacañang had bothered to listen, these are all supporters of the FOI bill who have already spoken clearly about the need for the President to push the law’s passage. Too, they are among the over 150 individuals and groups that comprise the Bantay FOI! Sulong FOI! network.

Interestingly, the Aquino administration has taken a significant role in a global initiative for greater government transparency. It sits in the steering committee of the Open Government Partnership, a multilateral, eight-country initiative launched by US President Barack Obama “to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance”.

Just last July 12, the governments of the US and Brazil, together with the steering committee, convened at the US Department of State premises a high-level international meeting on how to take the initiative forward.

Malacañang must understand: Its desire to assume an honored place in the world stage as one of the leading lights of transparency in the world will not fly unless it commits to the immediate passage of the FOI Act in the Philippines.

Our pledge

Over the last 14 months, the FOI advocates have waited, and engaged Malacañang in open and honest dialogue. Whatever action the President takes on its draft FOI bill, nothing should stop our senators and congressmen from acting on the FOI bills now pending before the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Babantayan namin: Will President Aquino finally express his clear and unequivocal support for the passage of the Freedom of Information Act in his SONA on July 25, 2011?

Babantayan namin: Will Sen. Gregorio Honasan and Rep. Ben Evardone, who chair the respective committees on public information of the two chambers, bring the FOI bill to plenary early into the second regular session of the 15th Congress?

Babantayan namin: Will the Senate and the House of Representatives move the bill past the congressional wringer sans undue and unreasonable delay?

Higit sa lahat, babantayan namin: Who will work to mangle, cripple, and crush the FOI bill?

Transparency

Even as we make another determined push for the passage of the FOI law, we do not lose sight of the importance of existing mechanisms and initiatives to promote greater transparency in the government.

Our member-organizations will continue their monitoring and clamor for full disclosure of government procurement and public works contracts, the appointments to critical government offices, and the statement of assets, liabilities, and net worth of public officials.

We are ready and willing to cooperate with government agencies proactively instituting transparency mechanisms, such as the Department of Budget and Management, and the Department of the Interior and Local Government.

Nonetheless, we must stress that these transparency initiatives by certain executive agencies are for now the exception rather than the rule. These initiatives form, too, just half the equation of what constitutes the people’s right to know. The more essential other half requires all government agencies to disclose within reasonable time periods all documents and information vested with public interest on request of citizens.

We emphasize that ultimately, only an FOI law could guarantee stable, predictable and strategic transparency across the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, all constitutional commissions, all administrative bodies, all GOCCs, and all local governments.

Today, we reaffirm our commitment to fight for our freedom of information. Together, we will work to expand our ranks, raise public awareness, build consensus, actively engage Malacañang and Congress, and intensify our campaign to have the Freedom of Information Act passed within the second regular session of the 15th Congress.

It is plain and simple: the people’s right to know is a constitutionally guaranteed right. It is not a matter subject to negotiation with public officials or lawmakers, or to the discretion of whichever party is in power.

Bantay FOI! Sulong FOI!

 

To see the full text of the Bantay FOI! Sulong FOI! Manifesto with the list of members of the coalition, please click  here.

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