THE FAILURE of the Aquino administration to pass the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act in the last three years — contrary to its avowed commitment to the Barack Obama-led Open Government Partnership (OGP) project — is up for discussion this week by an OGP subcommittee.
A report posted Wednesday on the www.freedominfo.org website said an OGP subcommittee “is expected this week to discuss whether the OGP should signal its disappointment with the Philippines government for failing to pass freedom of information legislation.”
The report said the discussion was prompted by a recent request from Atty. Nepomuceno Malaluan, co-director of the Institute for Freedom of Information, and Toby Mendel, executive director of the Centre for Law and Democracy.
The request “poses a challenge to OGP officials, who have said that criticizing governments is not an OGP function,” FreedomInfo.org, the global network of FOI advocates said.
A similar situation had arisen in late 2011 when the OGP was asked to comment on the pending secrecy bill in South Africa. “The member governments of the OGP Steering Committee decided against making a statement, but the members from civil society wrote a joint letter expressing concerns about the controversial South African bill,” the report said.
The letter of the CSO representatives urged the South African government to listen to the civil society concerns and said passage would cast “a shadow” over South Africa’s participation in OGP.
“A broad South African civil society coalition, the Right2Know Coalition, had asked the OGP leadership to object to the bill, maintaining that the bill was inconsistent with South Africa’s participation in OGP, particularly as a founding member and Steering Committee member,” the letter stated.
The secrecy bill has been modified, although not entirely to critics’ satisfaction, and is expected to pass in the near future, FreedomInfo.org said.
In their letter to the OGP dated Feb. 8, 2013, Malaluan and Mendel averred the recent failure of Philippines Congress to pass a freedom of information law and expressed “the widespread view among FOI supporters in the Philippines that President Benigno Aquino failed to deliver on his campaign promise to pass a FOI law by being slow to propose a bill and failing to encourage legislative action.”
FreedomInfo.org cited that the OGP action plan that the Aquino government had submitted calls passage of a FOI bill as a “critical component” of its plan.
The Philippines government is a founding member of the OGP and together with the South African government, serves on the OGP Steering Committee.
“We sincerely hope that the OGP Steering Committee takes decisive action in response to this fact that the Philippines still does not have an RTI law,” said Malaluan. “If it does not, we believe that the credibility of the OGP will be at risk.”
According to Freedominfo.org, the OGP Governance and Leadership Subcommittee is likely to discuss the topic on a scheduled teleconference call this week in advance of an in-person meeting to be held next week in Jakarta, according to OGP officials.
Yet still, the report said “the likelihood of OGP comment is considered slight. Officials from OGP member countries have been reluctant to publicly criticize other countries. In addition, the OGP philosophy is geared toward encouraging participation and voluntary action.”
“Progress on action plans is to be self-assessed by governments and examined through an Independent Review Mechanism,” the report said.”The self-assessments by the Philippines government and the other seven founding members are due by the end of March. The selection of an independent reviewer for the Philippines and the other founding members is under way, with those reports due in October.”
Malaluan and Mendel noted in their letter that the OGP Article of Governance says that Steering Committee members should show “leadership by example for OGP in terms of domestic commitments.” They asked that the OGP “signal to the Government of the Philippines that its actions are not in accordance with the norms and expectations of the OGP.”
“The OGP has addressed what to do if countries consistently fail to fulfill their pledges over time, adopting a rule that subpar performance over three consecutive years could lead to suspension, FreedomInfo.org said.
The key provision of the Articles of Governance states:
“Should the IRM process find that a participating government repeatedly (for three consequent years) acts contrary to the OGP process and to its Action Plan commitments (Addenda B and C), fails to adequately address issues raised by the IRM, or is taking actions that undermine the values and principles of the OGP, the Steering Committee may upon recommendation of the Criteria and Standards (CS) Sub-committee review the participation of said government in OGP>”
FreedomInfo.org said another “unresolved internal OGP controversy” involves the Philippines: Which three member-countries should step off the Steering Committee to make room for new members.”
Norway has agreed to drop off, and both the Philippines and South Africa seemed the likely other two candidates, the report said.
However, it added that South Africa has balked and expressed “concerns about being it asked to volunteer to rotate off while the Philippines was being encouraged to remain on.”
“The Philippines had originally indicated a willingness to rotate off, but later changed its mind,” FreedomInfo said, citing sources.
The lead co-chair of the OGP, the United Kingdom, was said to be trying to resolve the situation.
OGP officials said the recent request to send a “signal” to the Philippines would likely come up at meeting of the Governance and Leadership Subcommittee.
The four members of the subcommittee are the representatives of the governments of Indonesia and the United Kingdom (chair), and of the International Budget Partnership and Twaweza.
Minutes of OGP subcommittee meetings are prepared and released. The most recent posted subcommittee minutes date to last September. Some can be found on the “Meeting & Minutes” page and others can be found under “related files” on the “Governance Staff and Donors” page.
The next OGP Steering Committee meeting is scheduled late April in London, FreedomInfo.org said.