THE right of the people to know how their government operates is enshrined in the 1987 Constitution, which states that citizens must be given access to official records and documents pertaining to official acts, transactions or decisions, as well as government research used as the basis for policy making.
Successive administrations and legislatures, however, have failed to set these guarantees down in a law since the first freedom of information bill was filed in 1987.
The record that follows that early attempt is a 30-year record of failures brought about by political expediency and a lack of will.
During the 11th Congress, the House of Representatives passed a right to information bill on third reading, but without a counterpart bill in the Senate, the legislation withered on the vine. A succession of similar bills all failed to pass muster. In 2010, the Senate passed a version of the FOI bill, but the House failed to even vote on it because of a lack of quorum.
Often, the lack of executive support was the kiss of death.
In 2010, candidate Benigno Aquino III promised to pass an FOI law while he was campaigning to be president, then promptly forgot his vow after he won the election. Mr. Aquino’s facile line to his disillusioned supporters—that they no longer needed an FOI law because his administration was already transparent—was a bald-faced lie that eventually enabled his Cabinet secretaries to enter into questionable deals in agriculture and transportation, without the inconvenience of close public scrutiny.
A particularly odious wrinkle in the bid to pass an FOI law emerged in 2014, with attempts by some lawmakers to include a “right-to-reply” rider that would require mainstream media groups to “allot airtime or print media space to aggrieved parties or to those claiming to be unjustly placed in a bad light by news stories.”
The move was widely condemned as prior restraint that would subsume the editorial prerogative of the press to decide which stories to print, air or upload—and further diluted the already tepid efforts to give citizens free access to public documents and records.
Now, Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez promises to make history by enacting an FOI bill before the year ends.
This is an encouraging development, until we recall that his predecessor, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr., made a similar vow during the previous administration, then hardly lifted a finger to make good on his promise.
There is some reason for hope, however. Unlike his predecessor, President Rodrigo Duterte has not forgotten his campaign promise to make FOI a priority, and has already issued an executive order to ensure easier public access to information from executive department agencies.
But an effective FOI law—minus any obnoxious riders—would cover all branches of government, resulting in greater transparency and less corruption. We hope that President Dutere and his legislative allies are up to the challenge, and finally break our 30-year losing streak.