Despite the apparent reluctance of President Aquino to pursue the passing of the Freedom of Information Bill (FOI), it was passed by the Senate last March. Under the measure, citizens will have the right to request and be granted access to records or information that is under the control of government, subject to reasonable exceptions.
These include information that would jeopardize national security, foreign relations, law enforcement operations, trade and economic secrets, individual’s right to privacy, privileged information as considered in judicial proceedings or information made in executive sessions of Congress and those that are covered by presidential privilege.
Once enacted into law, the FOI bill will require government officials to act or comply with the request for information within 15 working days.
According to Sen. Grace Poe, the proposed legislation will cover all government agencies and instrumentalities, which will also be required to upload on their websites the Statements of Assets, Liabilities and New Worth of their officials.
The senator said the websites of the government agencies should also publish all information pertaining to annual budget, monthly disbursements, procurement plan, items for bidding and its corresponding results, contracts with domestic or foreign entities, bilateral or multilateral treaties, among others.
“Any loan or transaction entered into by any government agency amounting to at least P50 million shall be uploaded in full on the website of the concerned government agency or the Official Gazette online,” Poe said.
Poe said all government agencies will be required to set up their own FOI-complaint websites within two years after the law takes into effect.
“Government agencies will use plain language and if possible, translate important information into major Filipino dialects so that people will be able to appreciate the information better. Dapat madaling maintindihan ang mga data at impormasyon,” she said.
The bill, however, has remained in limbo in the lower house and with the administration looking least interested in getting it passed into law, there’s a great urgency for the Filipino people to push for its immediate passing before it completely loses its momentum.
President Aquino’s main objection to the bill centers on his perception that it is hard to achieve the right balance between stopping the revelation of sensitive data and providing information which may be required by the public. It is true, too, that certain information could be used to incite strong public disturbance and riots which could possibly destabilize the government. Complaints of a frivolous nature can cause a huge waste of time and funds of the government, or for discrediting politicians and public officials for partisan purposes and gain. External threats also cannot be ruled out, as certain sensitive financial information can get into the hands of other countries that are plotting to cause trouble.
Though the President’s concern is valid, the merits of the bill far outweigh its demerits. For one, it will allow for transparency in governing processes and legitimate distribution of funds allotted for various public purposes. In any governing body, there are always different levels of bureaucratic corruption which can be drastically reduced by a strong FOI act. People can access information about the allocation of public money and how it is being used. Government departments can be held accountable if there is any discrepancy in the data and the actual work done. People can also gather data about projects which are unduly stalled and form a strong case against the public officials. In many countries which have strong FOI laws, there is an emergence of activist groups who keep a strong eye on various aspects of the governing process. They act as watchdogs, which in itself serves as a strong deterrent for any misuse of funds or complacency.
Also, there are clauses and safeguards that can be incorporated in the bill. Neighboring countries like India, Indonesia and Thailand have passed effective legislation, which not only empower the public to get the relevant information but also safeguards the sovereignty of these respective countries. Therefore, it is quite clear that effective legislation is possible and that it simply all boils down to the will of the Philippine government and the politicians to make this into a reality. And in the event that they failed, you, the people, you can once again prove your power to turn things around.