President Aquino, Please Keep Your Promise to Make FOI Bill a Priority
Amid an ongoing congressional investigation on deep-rooted corruption in the military, we appeal to President Aquino to reconsider inclusion of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill in his list of legislative priorities. This should send the strongest signal to the country and the world that he remains truly committed to his anti-corruption agenda.
We cannot overemphasize the role that an FOI law will play in transforming government culture. As Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile observed when he explained the Senate’s commitment to the measure in the last Congress: “I think that if we do this, our desire for a more straightforward and honest government will be accomplished, because then people will have to be very, very careful and circumspect in performing their work in government, in transacting their official business, and in spending the money of the people.”
Necessary Supplement to Constitutional Right
While the Constitution guarantees the people’s right to information in the Bill of Rights, experience shows that its effective implementation requires the institutionalization of the necessary substantive and procedural details that only legislation can provide. President Aquino himself knows this. Asked by media after his proclamation whether his administration will prioritize the FOI bill, he said: “Yes, iba pa rin yung ano eh, may force of law, so that would be I think the more complete route.” (view at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HA5jZVlTKaM)
The institutionalization of the necessary substantive and procedural details, “with the force of law” is what the passage of the long overdue Freedom of Information Act will achieve. It provides a standard and definite procedure for dealing with requests for information. It clearly defines a list of exceptions, carefully balancing the public interest in broad disclosure with the public interest in keeping certain information secret. It secures for citizens concurrent remedies in cases of denial of access to information. It provides implementing mechanics for the public disclosure of a list of important government transactions, without need of request from anyone. It provides criminal and administrative sanctions for violation of the right to information. Finally, it introduces numerous mechanisms for the active promotion of openness in government. All these directly address the substantive and operational gaps that have made the Constitutional right to information extremely difficult to enforce in practice.
FOI Also Necessary for Social and Economic Agenda
The passage of the FOI law will serve not only President Aquino’s anti-corruption agenda, it will also serve well any agenda for economic growth and social justice. Institutionalized and predictable transparency builds confidence in the economy. We are certain that its passage will facilitate a quick improvement in most international indices on anti-corruption, good governance and rule of law, and contribute substantially in the improvement of international perception of the country. It is no surprise that the business sector supports the passage of this law.
But the other equally important benefit of having an FOI law is its availability to every ordinary citizen as they transact with government or access its programs and services. Be it on housing, social welfare programs such as CCT, agrarian reform, or social and health security programs at both national and local levels, an ordinary citizen needs both background information as well as documentation to effectively avail of such services. The passage of the FOI law will dramatically change the way government will handle these information needs.
Prioritizing FOI Not Inconsistent with Addressing the President’s Concerns
We are no stranger to apprehensions by top government officials over the passage of the FOI bill. One of such apprehensions is always over the treatment by the bill of sensitive information.
We recognize that the people’s right to information, like all the other constitutional guarantees, is not absolute. Thus, limitations may be provided by law, and the pending bills that adopt the bicameral conference committee version of the 14th Congress take the challenge of setting forth these exceptions. In crafting the exceptions, the bills have been guided by the classes of information that the Supreme Court has identified as areas for reasonable limitation of the right. These include national security, foreign affairs, law enforcement, trade secrets, personal privacy, and the administration of justice. What the bill does is to circumscribe the said areas for reasonable exceptions with narrow specificity as would limit the space for overbroad and arbitrary interpretation. This was done by specifying the harm or damage to public interest that will result if the relevant information is made publicly available.
We also emphasize that the bills have already evolved over several Congresses, and passed through numerous debates, discussions and consensus building among the various stakeholders from both the government and non-government sides, and subjected to the close scrutiny of legislators in the various stages of the legislative process.
Still, we have always been open to further refinements of the bill to address whatever concerns remain. In fact, we participated in the last technical working group (TWG) meeting of the House Committee on Public Information, and further amendments to the bill have been agreed to. In this TWG, more than 30 executive agencies have beeninvited, 18 of which have submitted position papers. Some of these position papers raiseremaining concerns, but all agencies support and see the necessity of passing the FOI law.
In truth, we want the FOI law to be an effective law, which can only come from a very careful balancing of the various legitimate interests involve. But the consideration of remaining concerns by President Aquino on the FOI is not incompatible with himidentifying it as a priority of his administration. It’s prioritization in fact will provide focus and determination to address whatever concerns remain.
Appeal to the President for Clear Signal and Concrete Action
We have made repeated attempts to appeal to President Aquino to give a decisive signal of support for the measure; this has been a clear aspiration of the support for his administration. We wrote him in July last year, through Executive Secretary Ochoa, Presidential Chief of Staff Julia Abad, and Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda, appealing that the FOI law be indentified as one of his priorities. But not only was our letter not responded to, the FOI bill was also not mentioned at all in the SONA. We wrote him again more recently through Secretaries Carandang, Coloma and Lacierda, appealing for the inclusion of the FOI bill in his priorities, even as we expressed openness to refinements in the bill to respond to any concerns he may have, including those already expressed by Secretary Coloma in Congress. We must confess that the President’s refusal to include the FOI bill in his list of priority measures is a big letdown.
We have heard various voices from the executive on the proposed measure. But in the end, the determination of the Executive’s ultimate priorities and stand is the President’s call; it is a question of leadership.
Given that the LEDAC is scheduled at the end of the month yet, we again make our earnest and most respectful appeal to President Aquino to include the FOI bill in his list of priorities. We also appeal to President Aquino to assign specific members of his administration to more formally, and within a specific timeframe, study the latest version of the bill and assess it against his concerns. We understand that there is a comprehensive memorandum prepared by Deputy Speaker Tañada discussing the concerns raised so far and concrete refinements will be introduced in the TWG proposed consolidation of the FOI bill. On our part, we again offer our readiness to constructively discuss whatever concerns remain, towards the objective of coming up with a bill that strikes a careful and reasonable balance between the people’s right to access information and other legitimate, competing interests.
We make this appeal fully confident of the President’s appreciation of the value of a Freedom of Information Act in promoting good governance, transparency and accountability, and responsive government services.
To see the full text of the statement and the list of members of the coalition, please click here.