When Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed an executive order on Freedom of Information (FOI) shortly after he was elected in 2016, his spokesperson, Martin Andanar, said that “contracts involving the use of public funds will be made available” to the public.

Nearly six years later, not only are contents of some government contracts still inaccessible to the public, but previously available documents like those that reveal public officials’ source of wealth have since become difficult to obtain, even for members of the media.

An analysis of inquiries lodged through the FOI website showed less than half were granted, way below the 80% approval rate that the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), which oversees the FOI order enforcement, had set for participating agencies. Since November 2016, when the program started, an average of one in four requests was denied and many remained pending for an indefinite time. 

These numbers do not tell the whole story, however. Despite the FOI order, sensitive information like government contracts and feasibility studies of public projects were kept under wraps. Many requests that were approved were “low-ball” requests, as one scholar put it, involving information that should have been made public even without an FOI.

In some cases, requests were tagged “successful” on paper, but the information were not released at all.

 

 

 

Analysts said many of the challenges are birth pains of a relatively new program. There is lack of manpower to handle voluminous requests each day, a situation that is exacerbated when citizens still unfamiliar with how the FOI order works misfile their requests.

But many of the problems may also be traced to agencies that appear to be intentionally skirting the FOI rules. Because it is a presidential order and not a law, FOI has been easily overruled by privacy laws, providing legal cover to offices that deny requests. When this happens, public servants get away from being accountable, while the citizens they serve are just left in the dark.

“Indeed, by all indications, Duterte sticks out as the lie of his own Freedom of Information edict,” the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) said in a 2019 report.

 

TOP PHOTO: President Rodrigo Duterte signs the Freedom of Information executive order. Malacañang photo

 

 Blocked and negated 

 

When Duterte issued Executive Order No. 2 to enforce FOI in the Executive branch, it was welcomed as a swift fulfillment of a campaign promise, a proactive move as Congress appeared unreceptive to passing a counterpart law. Yet, in many cases, freedom of information was weakened by the agencies themselves, including Duterte’s office, making the measure ineffective and incapable of unearthing government wrongdoings.

Take the Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) as an example. Each year, public officials are mandated by law to make available their SALN, a document detailings the sources of their income and wealth. Yet Duterte himself did the opposite: all nine requests for his SALN filed with the PCOO and Presidential Management Staff, both under his office, were denied becase they were supposedly filed with the wrong agency. 

Indeed, by law, the Ombudsman serves as the custodian of the SALNs of the president, vice-president and other top officials. But nothing stops public officials from releasing their SALN themselves. Vice President Leni Robredo did this six times through FOI, as did Duterte’s own Cabinet members, Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat and Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III. 

They are the outliers, however. Across the executive branch in 2021, over one in four FOI requests for the SALN of public officials was denied, our analysis showed.


 




Apart from the SALN, FOI requests about the controversial war on drugs were also blocked. Since 2016, at least eight requests about the drug war were filed through the FOI portal. Three were denied while four were granted. One request back in June 2021 was tagged as “accepted” by the justice department, but the agency did not follow through. The request remained unaddressed to date.

One FOI filing about the drug war came from Lian Nami Buan, a justice beat reporter for multimedia news site Rappler. In February 2021, she requested access to the justice department’s preliminary report of its review of the drug war, which was conducted following a threat of a UN investigation. While the department issued press statements about its findings, the report was not released in its entirety. Buan’s request was denied. 

“FOI was never really helpful in my experience,” Buan said. “I use it a lot, but of the successful requests, the data given to me was not the data I asked for… So in a way, all these denials were expected,” she said.

 

 


 

PCIJ's coverage of access to information under the Duterte administration

PCIJ request for Duterte SALN runs into dead end — again

Duterte's secret SALN: The lie of his FOI

Duterte’s SALNs secret; PCIJ makes public wealth disclosures of all presidents since Cory

Unexplained wealth, redacted?

Public Contracting in the Philippines: Breakthroughs and Barriers

 


 

Elsewhere in the world, journalists typically rely on FOI to investigate government wrongdoings. In Brazil, investigative journalists used contracts acquired through FOI requests to expose how its army paid its suppliers of anti-malaria drugs over thrice the market value of the items. In the U.S., journalists also used hospital documents acquired through FOI requests to show that the Centers for Disease Control was miscounting gun injuries.

In comparison, the current FOI regime in the Philippines hardly allows these kinds of requests. The country's FOI has so far concentrated on handling “low-ball requests," said Paul Jason Perez, assistant professor at the University of the Philippines. He has done extensive research on freedom of information.

“When you examine it, most people request data that are available in government websites and based on the EO, these are not valid FOI requests because they are already published,” Perez explained.

“Similarly, there are requests which ask for data that should have already been published in the first place. When you weave through all the noise, requests which the FOI is for, are in fact, being rejected,” he added.

 

 Helpless against laws 

 

Kris Ablan, deputy presidential spokesperson whose office manages the FOI portal, said there is not so much he can do to fix these problems. “When it comes to how individual agencies handle their requests, it’s up to them. We constantly remind them, but some are just strict about the information they cannot share,” Ablan said. 

The FOI order not having the force of a law is a big drawback. While its intentions are noble, being an executive order, FOI is trumped by confidentiality rules under the National Internal Revenue Code and data privacy laws.

Recently, BIR denied separate FOI requests from GMA News, ABS-CBN and Rappler, asking for a copy of the bureau’s payment demand to former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the frontrunner in the presidential polls being asked to settle P203 billion worth estate taxes, inclusive of surcharges and interest, following a Supreme Court ruling against his family. 

 

 

The tax bureau rejected separate requests from ABS-CBN News, GMA News and Rappler even after the finance department, BIR’s mother agency, already went public about its demand letter to the Marcoses. “I will probably appeal it,” said Buan, who was among the reporters who filed an FOI. 

“I have very low expectations when it comes to FOI, but I keep using it because I have to put it to task,”she said.


 

 Logistics and manpower issues 

 

Journalists are not alone in encountering challenges. Back in 2016, Robert Anthony Siy III, who works for the Pasig City local government, requested a copy of the Metro Manila Road Transit Rationalization Study, a plan meant to improve the National Capital Region’s dire traffic situation. A transport economist, he wanted to assess the study and provide suggestions for improvement. 

It took the transport department six months to process his request. “Your FOI request is approved. I enclose a copy of the information you requested,” the reply said. But there was one problem: the attachment was nowhere to be found. 

“I never actually received a copy of the data,” Siy said. “I no longer followed it up with them since I already got what I needed from other means.” 

The same thing happened to a certain Kenneth Co, who asked the same agency last February for a copy of the Metro Rail Transit-7 concession agreement between the government and San Miguel Corp. He was clear about his request straight up from the title: “MRT-7 Executed Concession Agreement (including Annex Q).”

After a series of back and forth, the department granted Co’s request on March 16, but only the annex was provided. “Thank you for providing Annex Q of the Concession Agreement. We were expecting to study the [entire] concession agreement as well,” he replied. The department had yet to respond as of this writing.

 

 

Mistakes like these were not caused by policy disagreements and thus would unlikely be resolved by new regulations. They stemmed from dismal resources allocated to the program, partly because there has been no specific funding source for the FOI program, not even in the PCOO budget.

This, in turn, affected service delivery. An example is the appointment of so-called “FOI receiving officers.” In an ideal world, these employees would have the lone job of handling FOI queries. In reality, they are rank-and-file employees with other tasks but were forced to take on the additional work of screening FOI requests. 

“I grew white hair in answering them one-by-one,” said in jest by a 28-year-old former FOI officer of a government financial institution, declining to be named because she no longer worked there.

Reading and replying to each request are the easy part. There are templates for the responses. The struggle of FOI receiving officers begins when they follow up responses from officials who are supposed to provide the data so they can relay them to the requesters.

It becomes exhausting when there is an unusual surge in requests. In 2020, for example, agencies like the Department of Social Welfare and Development and Office of the Vice President were swamped with queries requesting for pandemic cash assistance. While both agencies ran relief programs at the height of the health crisis, none of these requests were deemed valid under FOI rules, and thus were denied.

 

 

 

Ablan said the added burden of cleaning up misfiled requests only means that some Filipinos are still not familiar with how FOI works. To address this gap, PCOO is conducting FOI education caravans, while introducing new policies from their end to improve facilitation of FOI requests. One such policy is the “no wrong-door policy” that started in 2020, which mandates agencies to reroute misfiled requests to the correct office, instead of denying them altogether. 

While the policy is a welcome fix to assist “lost” citizens, Perez said it would only work if more resources were funneled to the FOI program. Otherwise, agencies receiving these requests would be swamped even more, making them prone to mistakes. 

“It’s going to be additional work for FOI officers because they need to be familiar not only with their agency’s information ecosystem, but also other agencies,” Perez said.

“Considering how big our bureaucracy is, it’s going to be a difficult task,” he added. END

 

 


Prinz Magtulis is a data and financial journalist, who has been covering the Philippine economy and business for over a decade. He was most recently business news head for Philstar.com.

Prinz is currently based in New York where he is set to complete his masters of science degree in data journalism at Columbia Journalism School. This report was completed in partial fulfillment of his scholastic requirements.

 


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