Lawyer Nepomuceno Malaluan is a trustee of Action for Economic Reforms and co-convener of the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition. This piece was published in the February 14, 2011 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

The final words of General Angelo Reyes, as reported by Malou Mangahas of PCIJ, sum up the systemic and deep-rooted nature of corruption in the Philippines: “I did not invent corruption. I walked into it…. No system is perfect. The AFP system needs a lot of systemic solutions…And the same might be true of some other institutions.”

General Reyes himself identified one of the needed systemic solutions, that is, the reform of the justice system. He said: “(J)ustice can be served if laws are applied evenly and well – not favoring the rich and powerful…. The fight to reform the system and the entire country must continue; the sad part is that they are selectively targeting individuals and institutions.”

Another systemic solution, we submit, is the passage of the Freedom of Information Act. It will work two ways. On the part of government officials and employees, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile’s captures it precisely when he observed: “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.” On the part of citizens, it will empower them to look closely into government transactions from the highest to the lowest levels of government.

It is the promise of such systemic solutions to corruption that has catapulted President Aquino to his present position. And it is a promise that people who supported his candidacy expect him to keep. It is thus disheartening that President Aquino chose to exclude the FOI bill from his list of priority legislative measures.

In explaining the non-inclusion of the FOI bill, Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda referred to a number of concerns relating to national security and privacy, but did not provide the specifics to facilitate an informed discussion. In truth, the bills that both Houses of Congress are working on all recognize exceptions. The bicameral conference version of the 14th Congress on which most of the present pending bills are based has been guided by the classes of information that jurisprudence has identified as areas for reasonable limitation of the right to information. 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. If only Malacañang would read the bills pending in Congress closely, it will realize that the prerogatives of the President over sensitive information are amply protected.

As a way forward, Secretary Lacierda discloses that Malacañang will develop its own FOI bill. We raise at least two issues regarding this approach.

First, this tragically ignores the long legislative history of the FOI bill in Congress. Deputy Speaker Erin Tañada’s narrates the thorough legislative work that went into the crafting of the bicameral conference report, in a memorandum addressing the various concerns raised on the FOI bill. The House Committee on Public Information heard and considered comments and suggestions by representatives of the Executive branch as well as by nongovernment groups before the plenary unanimously approved the measure. At the Senate, the committee then chaired by Senator Alan Peter Cayetano adopted the House version as starting point and incorporated additional inputs by the Civil Service Commission, the Department of Justice, and the Office of the Ombudsman. Committee members also introduced further substantive and procedural refinements. At the Senate plenary, the committee report went through close constitutional scrutiny by Senators Miriam Defensor Santiago and Joker Arroyo, and further amendments by Senator Francis Escudero.

Even in the present Congress, we know that the technical working group in the house is introducing further refinements to respond to remaining concerns raised by executive agencies, including those of Secretary Herminio Coloma.

Second, the approach discloses the disjoint between Malacañang and its agencies. More than 30 executive agencies have been invited to the hearings in Congress, and at least 15 of them have submitted position papers. While some suggest further changes, all agencies endorse the immediate passage of the law.

The LEDAC (Legislative Executive Development Advisory Council) meeting is scheduled at end February yet. We hope the President will listen to the citizens’ voices and take the opportunity to reconsider including the FOI bill in his list of priorities.

We believe that identifying the FOI bill as a priority is not at all inconsistent with addressing whatever concerns President Aquino still has on the bill. Instead of drafting a new bill, we submit that a more efficient route is 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. It will also help if President Aquino also consult the people who have been painstakingly working on the bill, such as Deputy Speaker Tañada, who is a senior member of his own political party.

By including the FOI bill in his prioritities, President Aquino will give the strongest signal that he remains committed to his anti-corruption platform, and that he is ready and able to institute systemic reforms consistent with his promise to the Filipino people when he ran for office.