[Opinion] Personal fears prevents passage of FOI

I traveled from one town to another in the Province of Iloilo in the last two weeks as part of the team that evaluated the impact of a project on transparent and accountable governance. The information that we have gathered from the communities is rewarding enough for it offered a conclusion that governance practices in many towns have become transparent.

One of the notable practices on transparency in governance which many barangays and municipal governments have institutionalized is what they call “Pamangkotanon sang Banwa” (citizen’s query) wherein the citizens are given the opportunity to ask questions directly to the elected officials of the municipality on projects, programs and services of the local government.

In some towns, the practice is like a people’s assembly and held during the simultaneous annual assemblies of barangays which is twice a year as mandated by the Local Government Code.

Among the key findings of the evaluation process is the improvement in communications between the people and its elected officials and the accessibility to information. Many community leaders have shared that the citizen’s query has facilitated openness between the people and its elected officials and improved people’s access to information.

All the testimonies that I have gathered put back into mind the pending passage of the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) in Congress. While some improvement are taking place in the community and municipal level like what we have in some towns in Iloilo, we have yet to attain concrete intervention in the national level as far transparency and accountability in government is concerned through an FOI Act.

Colleagues in the media have initiated a campaign to aggressively push for the passage of the bill after the FOI wallowed in neglect from the 12th Congress to the present. There seems to be little interest now from the Liberal Party-led coalition in the House of Representatives to settle the FOI once and for all.

The necessity to pass the FOI is grounded on the Constitution. The 1987 Constitution recognized the significance of public interest as such state policies must have full transparency and accountability including the conduct of all public officials and employees. Together with this is the guarantee of full public disclosure of information. The Constitution upheld the people’s right to know and be informed about all policies, projects, and programs of government that involves the use of taxpayers’ money.

In spite of the clear mandate from the Constitution the FOI is sliding back date from being finally passed into law. According to senior officials and administration legislators, the disinterested legislators argued that Executive agencies of government have now become transparent anyway and mechanisms have been plugged like the online uploading of budget and finance documents which ensures transparency and accountability.

Moreover, it is also claimed that the FOI Act seems largely an issue of the middle class and the media for government agencies have become more transparent in its transactions. Politically, the FOI Act might not get the numbers needed in the House and with the May 2013 elections fast approaching the passage of the FOI might divide more than unite the political parties.

Arguably, what the disinterested legislators are saying is that we do not need to pass the FOI. Online uploads of public documents although a practice consistent with transparency is not what full transparency in government is all about.

The online uploading practice is just half the transparency equation that the FOI Act must guarantee. The other, more important half of the equation that the FOI Act guarantees is the public disclosure of documents on request or on demand of citizens asserting their right to access information under the custody of the government.

The necessity of having an FOI is founded on the citizens’ right to know and need to know regarding how public officials exercises its powers and authorities; how they spend public funds; what are the contracts and agreements they sign in behalf of the people; what policy issues bothers them which must also bother the people in order for the people to be able to actively participate in making decisions.

The citizens must likewise know what programs are being implemented by the government and how they can access relevant public documents. Indeed, the right to information is both the most supreme and the most fundamental as it is the bedrock of all our rights to education, property, livelihood, even life.

The right to information is our protection against government abuse, at the same time that it is our power to make government accountable. Yet our right to information, as great and self-executing as it is under the 1987 Constitution, requires a complementing legislation to ensure that it is clear-cut, full and predictable. Twenty-six years and five presidents, however, the FOI Act remains just a promise in spite of the fact that the Act underwent numerous revisions already.

In truth what is now left preventing the passage of the FOI law are the personal and speculative fears of our leaders of the people’s exercise of their right to know. The long wait for the FOI Act should be over yesterday.

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