By Perry Diaz
The debate on the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill has been going on for years; long before President Benigno “P-Noy” Aquino III came to power in 2010. Actually, it was a “hot” issue during the presidential campaign and Noynoy – as he was called then – campaigned on a promise to pass an FOI law as soon as he’s sworn in as President.
Well, it’s been more than three years since Noynoy… now, P-Noy, took the mantle of leadership and an FOI bill is still being crafted in Congress in a shape and form acceptable to P-Noy. For some reason, there is something about the FOI bill that doesn’t meet his approval. Or is he apprehensive about the unknown, like opening a Pandora’s box?
But what would he be apprehensive – or scared – about? He seems to be uncertain of what he wants in the bill. And the longer he vacillates, the less likely that anything would come out of this political exercise, which is causing a lot of people to ask, “Why can’t he make up his mind?”
Right to know
Indeed, some lawmakers are at wit’s end not knowing what to do with the FOI bill, which has been waiting for action in the House Committee on Public Information. A few weeks ago, advocates of FOI began an advertizing campaign against Rep. Ben Evardone, the chairman of the Public Information committee, accusing him of blocking the bill. The advertisers, “The Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition,” is a network of more than 150 organizations supporting the passage of an FOI bill.
But Evardone denied their accusation. In a recent televised interview with Failon Ngayon, he said that the Liberal Party doesn’t have a stand on the FOI bill and that it was not on P-Noy’s legislative priority agenda. Likewise, the bill’s authors, who include Deputy Speaker Lorenzo “Erin” Tañada III and Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello, are helpless in getting the bill moving in the committee. And where is Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. in this moro-moro? Well, he was more like the team’s coach. But the team’s owner was P-Noy. And what P-Noy says is what they do.
When P-Noy ran for President in May 2010, he promised to pursue FOI. But things have changed since then. What changed his mind?
Or, what changed his heart? Is it the “Right to Reply” amendment that is killing the “goose”? The “Right of Reply” amendment would require media groups to give equal space and time to parties who were subjects of negative media attacks to respond to allegations against them. Perhaps, the goose is not fat enough to produce good foie gras to satisfy everybody’s appetite.
Bill of Rights
Well, let’s go back to basics here, folks. Section 7 of Article III (Bill of Rights) of the 1987 Constitution says: “The right of the people to information on matters of public concern 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.”
Now, why can’t Congress enact a law that would satisfy Section 7 of the Bill of Rights? And this is where politics comes into play. Politicians want the “Right to Reply” amendment inserted in the FOI bill. The question is: How does this amendment relate to the provision of Section 7? The answer is: No, it does not. Why can’t they then remove this amendment and introduce it at a future date as a bill by itself? In that case, the FOI bill can then move forward in Evardone’s committee.
But is that the only obstacle to the passage of an FOI law? Would it soothe P-Noy and encourage him to give the thumbs-up to his followers in the House of Representatives?
It is interesting to note that 26 years after the EDSA People Power Revolution that catapulted P-Noy’s mother – Cory Aquino -- to power, the country is still struggling in poverty and corruption is as rampant as it was quarter of a century ago. Although the Bill of Rights was enshrined in the 1987 Constitution – also known as People Power Constitution -- not much has been done to protect the people.
Indeed, nothing has been done to promote transparency and accountability in the government. Corruption is still prevalent in the conduct of government business. During Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s nine-year presidency, the Philippines became one of the most – if not the most -- corrupt countries in Asia.
P-Noy’s ascension to power somewhat curbed graft and corruption but not as much as the people would like it to be. His “matuwid na daan” (straight path) policy seems to be more of a political slogan than a code of conduct for government employees to adhere to. In the vast labyrinth of the bureaucracy, corrupt officials continue their nefarious activities. To most of them, it’s business as usual. Why?
P-Noy should – nay, must! – realize that his anti-corruption crusade is not going to succeed without dismantling the patronage system that is protecting the corrupt. Only the passage of an FOI law could end corruption in government. Indeed, FOI is the Holy Grail in the war on corruption.
I don’t blame P-Noy for not using his authority to enact an FOI law. Perhaps he is under tremendous pressure from his political allies who might be hurt politically – and economically – by an FOI law.
But in the end, it is P-Noy’s legacy that is at stake. Will he succeed? Which reminds me of George Harrison’s popular song, “The Answer’s at the End.” It goes: “Scan not a friend with a microscopic glass. You know his faults, now let his foibles pass.”