THE RIGHT TO KNOW is the bedrock of the fundamental freedoms of all citizens, and without further delay, Congress must pass the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, according to a statement read by PCIJ Executive Director Malou Mangahas on Wednesday at the Senate.
FOI, she said, enables and promotes the citizen’s rights to health, education, land, livelihood, and life — as well as to know how government is spending taxpayer’s money, and to censure officials for corruption, plunder, and betrayal of the public trust.
The PCIJ was among the resource groups invited to the first public hearing on FOI bills conducted by the Senate Committee on Public Information chaired by Sen. Mary Grace Poe.
More than just journalists, Mangahas said, all citizens have need and demand for public documents in the custody of public officials and agencies.
The immediate passage of an FOI law has become an imperative, she said, in light of the “token transparency” initiatives of the Aquino administration that have proved ineffective in checking the flaws and corruption of the pork barrel system.
“It is a kind of transparency according to the terms of the leaders, and not true transparency from the perspective, and according to the needs, of the citizens.”
“Transparency and accountability are inseparable values,” Mangahas said. “We need to know more than just the list of pork-funded projects, how taxpayer’s money was spent, who or which contractors got or pocketed the money, and whether or not the projects had been completed, according to contract terms.”
The full text of the statement follows:
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen of the Senate. On behalf of the editors and staff of the PCIJ, thank you for this opportunity to address the Senate Committee on Public Information.
We would like to make three points.
ONE. We in the mass media stand together, indivisible, and absolutely firm that the Freedom of Information law must pass now.
We are one with our colleagues in the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, the Philippine Press Institute, the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, the Center for Community Journalism and Development, and many other media agencies, behind a common cause — the immediate passage of a Freedom of Information Act.
We take this stand not because FOI will benefit journalists alone but most importantly, because all Filipino citizens have need and demand for public documents and information in the custody of public officials and agencies.
The right to know is the bedrock of most other fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution — the right to health, the right to education, the right to land, the right to seek gainful employment, the right to security of abode, the right to know how government is spending taxpayer’s money, the right to participate in governance, and yes, the right to censure and bring to justice public officials for corruption, plunder, and betrayal of the public trust. Most important of all, the right to information protects and promotes the citizen’s right to life.
The PCIJ has had a long history of accessing information, notably public finance documents (budget, audit reports, PDAF menu lists, civil works contracts, etc), SALNs, records covering graft cases and investigations, etc.
Based on the PCIJ’s experience, indeed some agencies are more open than others. Some do test the limits of the patience of the most diligent reporters. Many agencies, in the absence of uniform, standard procedures for dealing with requests for documents, generally take token action on such requests. They would pass around our requests among four or five departments or officials, or say that they must first clear the release of documents with their bosses — typically political appointees — or tell us that they simply cannot release the documents at all.
In the absence of such clear and uniform procedures for the release of documents, the citizen’s right to know and transparency will always be tested paradigms from one to another political administration.
TWO: We stand vigorously against an FOI law that has a right-of-reply rider, even as we fully respect the right of private persons to be heard and to challenge unfair or inaccurate news reports.
In the case of public officials, however, the greater principles in the Constitution and the law are: One, that a public office is a public trust; and two, that no law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech and of the press — fundamental freedoms of all citizens that the mass media hold and exercise only in custody.
While the right to reply to unfair or inaccurate news reports must be respected as a principle and obligation of journalism ethics, inserting a right of reply provision in an FOI law with procedures requiring the media to print or air any length of reply, is a certain abridgment of the principle and practice of self-regulation as a pillar of an independent and free press.
Self-regulation mechanisms are in place and working with modestly good results in individual media agencies with codes of ethics, as well as in the PPI (press council) and the KBP (standards authority). While we acknowledge the wayward, unethical ways of some of those in the media, a right of reply provision will not translate to their good behavior automatically.
In the same breath, the absence of a right of reply provision will not compel good behavior among bad politicians and political leaders, hence the media must not stop probing and prying into their misdeeds.
The pork barrel scam and the public outcry it has ignited are most instructive about the effete or questionable value of a right of reply clause. A bounty of information about PDAF disbursements had been made by the Commission on Audit, but to this day, most of the nearly 200 senators and congressmen who had been named as the sources of the questionable PDAF and projects do not want to reply, even with the media seeking their side ever assidiously.
THREE: Time and the numbers make the passage of an FOI an imperative today.
About 100 nations have FOI laws, many of them among the most developed and the most mature democracies in the world. To be sure, FOI has not proved to be a magic bullet against corruption even in these democracies. But FOI has certainly gone a long way in promoting two major pillars of good government — good record-keeping by public agencies, and good citizenship among people who are better informed and thus better prepared to participate meaningfully in governance.
In light of the pork barrel scam, government now says that it has promoted transparency by the online disclosure of the list of projects that lawmakers had proposed for funding, according to a limited menu allowed in the national budget. That is clearly token transparency; it has proved unable to correct the flaws and the corruption of the PDAF system. It is a kind of transparency according to the terms of the leaders, and not true transparency from the perspective, and according to the needs, of the citizens.
Transparency and accountability are inseparable values. We need to know more than just the list of pork-funded projects, how taxpayer’s money was spent, who or which contractors got or pocketed the money, and whether or not the projects had been completed, according to contract terms.
Finally, the FOI law is a reform legislation that has long been overdue, according to the Constitution, the fundamental law of the land.
The Constitution that passed in 1987 guarantees it. That was 26 years ago. The Constitution summoned Congress to enact a law to implement the spirit and letter of the guarantee — pass a Freedom of Information Act now, in the best interests of all our citizens, and not of our leaders.
Thank you and good day to you all.