The Philippines Needs an Access to Information Law

Ms. Lumba is a senior economic analyst and program officer on information disclosure for Action for Economic Reforms (AER). This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, August 22, 2005 edition, page 5.

Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.  A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both. – James Madison

I believe that a guarantee of public access to government information is indispensable in the long run for any democratic society…if officials make public only what they want citizens to know, then publicity becomes a sham and accountability meaningless. – Sissela Bok, Swedish philosopher

Fighting for a more open and democratic society

History has taught us that secrecy in governments and institutions breeds corruption and undermines human rights.  Corruption, a major concern of the government since time immemorial, can be minimized and possibly thwarted in the long-run, if the citizenry has greater access to public information.

The worldwide advocacy for greater access to information has made inroads in the last decade as governments have become increasingly more open in providing public documents and reports.  According to a 2003 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report, there are about 50 countries that already have comprehensive laws to facilitate access to state records. Many more nations are in the process of enacting such legislation.  The passage of Freedom to Information (FOI) Acts in different countries illustrates that governments recognize the importance of access to information in enhancing the democratic process, leading to a higher level of efficiency and effectiveness of government institutions.

Essential tool for human development

Furthermore, the right to information is an essential tool in the fight against poverty and for accelerating human development by expanding the choices individuals can make. A person who has access to information and therefore better informed is empowered to exercise his rights and has greater ability to make the proper choices.

It is of vital importance that information needs of the poor are addressed. For example, the poor lack information on the following: (1) basic rights and entitlements, (2) public services, (3) health services, (4) education, (5) employment opportunities, etc.  This lack of information makes them vulnerable to abuses by people who are in power and are only watchful of personal interests.  The poor, not knowing the legal remedies and mechanisms available to redress their grievances, have at times resorted to violent struggles.  In a recent forum in Iloilo where different sectors of society were asked to comment on the information disclosure bill pending in Congress, a female representative from the upland community confirmed that a series of violent events took place in the past, because they did not know their rights and the legal process of settling disputes.

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Another barrier to local communities’ access to public information is the fact that public documents are not translated in their local dialects, making the information of no use to them.  Other countries have already responded by translating public documents into various local dialects.

Better-targeted development projects

A government that engages in secrecy is more susceptible to the following: (1) agency problems or discrepancies on what government does and what it should have done to serve the interest of its citizens, and (2) weakened accountability and quality decision-making— which would have been possible if citizens were given access to the information critical to their well-being.

Public debate together with open decision-making is part of democratic governance.  The free exchange of ideas between civil society organizations and government agencies is essential. An unimpeded access to public information results in a genuine feedback mechanism between government and its constituents. Individuals are now able to voice their opinions and affect decisions made at the national and local levels. Thus, government is in a better position to identify priority projects that better answer people’s needs and allocate resources more efficiently.


Passage of the Access to Information Act

Although the right to public information is guaranteed by our Constitution and is self-executing, denial of access to information remains widespread.   For this reason, an enabling legislation is necessary to give teeth to the constitutional provision on the right to public information.

Already pending in the Lower House and the Senate are access to information bills, which aim to provide the following: (1) clearer and wider coverage of the right to access information on matters of public concern, (2) simpler, faster and uniform process of accessing official documents, (3) an improved remedy to compel disclosure if denied access, (4) clear statement on the responsibility of government officials to disseminate information of public concern, and (5) clear definition of punishable acts and its appropriate penalties.

All told, the benefits that Filipinos are set to gain with the passage of the Access to Information Act are immense.

It is high time we held our government officials more accountable for their actions, ultimately creating a more transparent government that is more responsive to the needs of its citizenry.  A necessary step towards this direction is passage of a law on the freedom of access to information.

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