Is the Philippines Serious about Open Government?
Filipino president Benigno Aquino III’s inaction on implementing a freedom of information bill into law and recent statements and omissions raises questions about his commitments to open government. In July 2011, Philippines was announced as one of eight countries participating in president Obama’s Open Government Partnership (OGP) formed to promote transparency and citizen engagement in government through national commitments. If his country’s participation in the OGP is to be credible, President Aquino needs to stop equivocating and show unambiguous support for government transparency by ensuring the speedy passage of the freedom of information law. Otherwise, the OGP risks losing both credibility and legitimacy with some of its members undermining the initiative’s purpose and impact.
Civil society organizations and right to information advocates are frustrated that President Aquino (or “NoyNoy”) failed to discuss freedom of information in his second State of the Nation address on 18 July – six days after the second OGP preparatory meeting in Washington DC. Representative Teddy Casino noted that freedom of information “is one of the key measures and the President did not mention it. It was disappointing.” Other congressional members echoed Representative Casino’s sentiments, believing the president’s speech has more failures than accomplishments.
Is this Doublespeak?
There is growing frustration on the part of access advocates and government officials over the Aquino administration’s mixed signals – “doublespeak” – over freedom of information. Lead convener of Right to Know, Right Now Network, Nepomuceno Malaluan asked, “we are unclear about the signal from the chief executive. Is he committed in passing the FOI bill?”
Undersecretary Manolo Quezon III explained that the administration is trying to find a “happy balance” between information provision and confidential government information, “the process of the case is not as fast as you want. Rightly or wrongly, the way [President Aquino III] handles things… In government, the process [should be] thorough and exhaustive.” But the fact is that a Freedom of Information Bill was passed by both houses of Congress in its last session but pulled from the agenda just before it was dissolved for the general election (see below). The Government has already done considerable work on the Bill and so has Congress. In this context, Undersecretary Quezon III’s explanation seems more like an excuse.
As recently as July 21, President Aquino III talked to Filipino citizens like children, “the right to know carries with it responsibilities – to use the information available in context; to present facts fairly; and to be conscious of some elements who may want to use information not to inform the public, but to rather inflame them.” Rather than a discussion he joked that the “legitimate concerns” of his administration regarding the FOI bill was that people would use it to dig into his love life.
FOI Not a New Initiative
The push for a freedom of information law is not a new initiative in the Philippines, nor is President Aquino III unfamiliar with the tenets being called for in the bill: as a member of the 14th Congress then-senator Aquino III approved the third reading of Committee Report 534, regarding Senate Bill 3308. The bill narrowly missed enactment in the 14th Congress when the House of Representatives failed to ratify the bicameral report of the reconciled bill from the revised House and Senate versions.
As president, Aquino III claims not to be completely comfortable with “[all raw information” on government affairs being made public, he asserts, “We have not avoided any question that has been thrown our way. So even in the absence of any FOI law, we have been trying to be transparent to the utmost level possible…”. But President Aquino seems to miss the point that access to their government’s information is the people’s right – it is not a matter of grace or discretion on the part of the government.
Like Brazil, right to information is guaranteed in the 1987 Filipino constitution, Article III, Section Seven: “The right of the people to information shall be recognized. Access to official records, and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.”
“Happy balance” or Restrictive?
The current modifications and “balance” that the Aquino Administration is making to the bill are more restrictive than not - “it is very ironic that the bill supposedly enhances liberty but actually diminishes it… You cannot have a bill that has so many restrictions… The burden of proof is on the person trying to deny access,” lamented FOI advocate and lawyer Theodore Te.
President Aquino’s most recent actions reveal his lack of commitment to OGP tenets of “promot[ing] transparency [and] empower[ing] citizens…” As a participating country in this international initiative President Aquino needs to not only pass a freedom of information bill fast but also ensure that it is not weighed down by inhibitive restrictions and exceptions. Passive membership in the OGP is damaging to the initiative’s potential; if the Philippines indeed wishes to be a leader in open governance - President Aquino needs to be transparent and accessible to the people.