WHO OR WHAT killed the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill?
All voters would do well to know and remember as the May 2013 election campaign heats up, according to the latest pooled editorial of the Philippine Press Institute (PPI) that ran this week.
The PPI is the national organizations of over 120 newspapers and periodicals across the nation.
Yet, of course, deliberate delays, the chronic absenteeism of lawmakers, and the lack of firm support by President Aquino and his allies in the House of Representatives killed the bill in the 15th Congress
What follows is the full text of the last of four pooled editorials on the FOI bill that PPI members have published in the last four weeks:
Of FOI heroes and heels
A MACABRE murder it was. The victim, the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill, lay forlorn in the last nine session days of Congress in the last three weeks, until finally it died.
To stave off its death, the media and the citizens had cried for leadership and urgent rescue by President Aquino and his allies in the House of Representatives. He and they alone had both power and mandate to save it. But they turned a deaf ear to the citizens’ clamor. They defaulted on their duty to lead. By their inaction, they had willed to send the FOI bill to the legislative morgue.
On the tombstone for the FOI bill, the facts should be written in no uncertain terms: Killed by official sloth, pride, and greed. Killed by politicians who lie on their promises and shirk from their duty to the people.
On the same tombstone, too, it should be written: Championed to the last by the people of the Philippines.
Official sloth killed the FOI bill. It is evident in the deliberate delays, the President’s constantly changing big and small “concerns” about the bill, and the ineptitude and chronic lack of a quorum in the House, that have marked the steadily slow pace of legislative work on the bill.
Pride is evinced in their espousal of transparency according to their terms. Transparency, they say, has been served because they have dumped tons of unintelligible but static budget and public finance records online, even as they refuse to respond to public requests for more documents on the use of taxpayers’ money.
And greed, for power and privilege surely, is palpable in their scorn for the FOI bill as it could trigger the disclosure of the full facts of their wealth and how they fiddle with public funds to finance their pork and other perks. The FOI bill, some had admitted in candor, will only lend their political rivals information to censure and expose them.
The death of the FOI bill in the 15th Congress gives the lie to the claims of the Aquino administration that it is a government committed to trekking daang matuwid.
The FOI bill could have served as the bedrock and institutional framework of that straight, narrow path but its death leaves daang matuwid narrow, dark, and stuck in potholes. Without an FOI framework, daang matuwid remains for the most part a slogan in theory but not in practice, a PR line.
Just as important, the death of the FOI bill in the 15th Congress is a sad commentary on how much and how far the President and his House allies value their promises and their word. Or alternately, how they do not at all. As a candidate for President in May 2010, Aquino had sworn to accord the FOI bill top priority. Meanwhile in 2011, his House allies filed suit to impeach, convict, and oust a chief justice, for his failure to disclose the true and full details of his wealth.
With his less than tepid verbal endorsement for the FOI bill, the President seems to be telling the nation that words are to a politician cheap, and promises, mere sound bytes a candidate mouths to get elected.
As for his House allies, the death of the FOI bill is proof that transparency and accountability is a razor-sharp sword they wield but only against political foes, never against themselves. To this day, in fact, Aquino’s House allies have refused to allow the chamber’s secretary general to release to the media and the citizens copies of all the Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth of all House members, as she is authorized in law to do, without need for approval of individual lawmakers.
Without an FOI framework, daang matuwid will constantly be hobbled by official sloth, pride, and greed. It is regretful that even now, as the election campaign heats up, the political opposition has mounted yet another PR spin they call daang maganda. But whether it is matuwid or maganda, a road not lit by the transparency and accountability that an FOI law assures in theory and practice, will simply remain a vicious, not virtuous, path at all.
The Constitution, from 26 years ago, has firmly guaranteed the citizens’ right to information on matters vested with public interest and involving use of public funds. The Constitution, from 26 years ago, has also enshrined transparency and accountability as state policies.
Under the same Constitution by which they took their oath of office and swore to serve, it is the solemn duty and obligation of the President and his House allies to pass the FOI bill into law. They have chosen instead to be painted as the heels in the murder of the FOI bill in the 15th Congress.
Yet still, under the same Constitution, the people of the Philippines continue to labor and campaign for the FOI bill. In their practice and advocacy, they are the true heroes of transparency, accountability, and good governance.
It is election campaign season. All voters would do well to remember who or what killed the FOI bill.