Roby Alampay, editor-in-chief of TV5′s online platform Interaksyon and former director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) hit the nail on the head when he told the Senate committee on public information and mass media that it would take more than the prosecution of one personality to restore public confidence in government.
Rather, Alampay told the committee, the best way for government to win the public trust is by also trusting the public by giving it the right to know – through the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill.
Alampay made the statement during the committee’s second hearing on the pending FOI bill earlier this week. The Senate committee approved the FOI bill for discussion in the plenary later this month.
“Finding Janet Lim-Napoles guilty of plunder will not restore the credibility of the legislature nor the executive. Even successfully prosecuting a number of legislators will not quite convince Filipinos of change,” said Alampay.
Jailing Napoles will not restore the credibility of government; passing FOI will“Kapag may sapat at tamang impormasyon si Juan de la Cruz sa mga isyung panlipunan, hindi lamang siya armado sa kaalaman – gaganahan at maeengganyo rin siyang makilahok sa pagpapaunlad ng bayan.”(When Juan de la Cruz has access to enough and correct information on social issues, he will not only be armed with knowledge – he will be enticed and encouraged to take part in nation-building.)These were the words of President Benigno Aquino III in November last year. Those words, while true, were tinged with irony. We are still here, after all, still without an FOI Law, still waiting for some unmistakable sign from government and our leaders that an FOI law will be sincerely prioritized and aggressively pursued (as the President had promised at the start of – and in fact prior to – his term.)We have been critical over the past months of President Aquino and his allies for a perplexing, softening, and sliding, stance on FOI. But we are here today in good faith, in genuine hope that for all that is past, and by whatever reasons this has been delayed, we are still and again moving forward, surely, and, this time, with clearer urgency.It is obvious to us that it is now obvious to an even greater number of Filipinos what access to information means and can bring. By whatever means information is allowed to come to light, whether by petition, by whistleblower, by leaks, or by journalistic enterprise, it has awesome and antiseptic power.Our institutions are in crisis. From having prosecuted two presidents to impeaching a Chief Justice and now to exposing anomalies in Congress, Filipinos see that the only thing that can save all our flawed houses in one fell swoop, what can restore confidence in the very proposition of checks and balance, is law.Finding Janet Lim Napoles guilty of plunder will not restore the credibility of the legislature nor the executive. Even successfully prosecuting a number of legislators will not quite convince Filipinos of change. More meaningful than impeaching the Chief Justice, more stunning than jailing a President, more selfless than giving up your pork barrel, more courageous than stepping out of the Ombudsman’s way, nothing will herald a new dawn more clearly than passing a law that tells Filipinos – “Here is your government, we have nothing to hide. Or maybe we do, but even if we wanted to, there is nothing we can hide.”The prevailing dismay among Filipinos is not only about all the sickening information now coming to light, but about the very reminder that information was never accessible to start with, and were it not for relationships going sour, for relatives turning against each other, were it not for the sheer luck of co-conspirators turning against each other, we would still be completely … complacent.Not in the dark, for the people always had an inkling of what was going on. Not that we were blind. We could always see. But this is the ultimate danger of lack of access to information. It is the deadened ability to move on despite what we know but cannot prove. We instill in our children the skills of complacency and surrender, to the things they hear us condemn and curse and do nothing else about.Lack of access to information engenders a culture of impunity. It reminds us that we are not really the boss of you.The access that we fight for is not about our leaders. It is not about keeping you in line. It is not even about simply empowering the media. Rather, it is about reminding us of our own citizenship, of our own responsibilities to ourselves, our families, our communities, our nation.For six years I lived in Thailand, the first country in Southeast Asia to pass an FOI Law. I happened to work for the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), whose mandate it was to work for press freedom, free expression, and yes, access to information in the whole region.In Thailand it was not any anti-corruption drive, nor any sensational prosecution of any government official that brought home the point as to what FOI means. In Thai, the word for “understand” is “kao jai”, which, translated literally, means, “enter the heart”. What pierced the hearts of Thais was not some multi-billion baht anomaly, not any expose of extravagance and unexplained wealth on the part of any official.The landmark case that mainstreamed the consciousness for FOI was not even a journalistic enterprise. It was not any initiative of the press.Rather, it was the crusade of a mother who simply could not easily accept that her daughter had failed to pass a state university entrance examination.She petitioned education officials to release the full results of everyone who took the exam. She found, as many had suspected – and as culture had accepted – that children of more affluent, more influential personalities, had of course been granted entry into the school, despite their having gotten lower grades than her daughter.The current environment in our country creates the impression that the clamor for FOI is about wanting evidence and material with which we can go on check on our officials and leaders. The current environment creates the impression that it is about making the press more powerful.The objective is wider, deeper, and more basic than that. What people truly want is to know how their taxes are being spent, how their futures are being shaped, how decisions are being made on any and all matters that impact their lives.We fight for FOI not because hounding you is the most enjoyable thing in the world, but because we need citizens who will not only be equipped, but will know how to take care of themselves and therefore look out for each other – Filipinos who will find that where information is fully accessible, citizenship becomes inescapable.Give us that gift, give us that power, give us that burden, and only then will we know that we have woken to a new day in a new nation.