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MANILA, Philippines — Open and accountable governance, an improved economy, People Power – these have long been favorite topics of President Benigno Aquino III. In his working visit to the US, he made sure he was on message. “As I told the foreigners we talked with, good governance is good economics,” the president said upon his return to Manila on September 23, Friday.
But Aquino’s beloved lines also highlighted what he and his officials failed to say and do.
Open to feedback… but not all
In “The Power of Open” discussion in Washington last Sept. 20, Aquino told a crowd of civil society groups and companies like Google about his government’s use of the Internet to empower citizens. His examples include the Official Gazette and Pera ng Bayan websites, and traffic and weather updates on Twitter.
But while his boss stressed the importance of “dispensing pearls of wisdom” on social media, Aquino’s spokesperson drew flak for attacking militants and critics online.
Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda, who was in Manila when his boss was traveling in the US, took to Twitter to express his sentiment toward transport group Piston after it went on strike on September 19, Monday. He tweeted, “Noticed how leftists are so onion-skinned? Tinawag lang perjuicio ang strike, pumuputok ang butchi nila! Mahilig bumanat pero mga pikon pala! (You just call the strike an inconvenience, and they get mad! They are fond of criticizing but easily get offended!)
When netizens reminded him to be careful about tweeting his personal opinion, Lacierda went on. “I relayed the true sentiments of the people. Is there a thought police in Twitter now?”
Lacierda’s rants were far from what Aquino told his audience. “Unity cannot be achieved by stifling dissent, but by allowing voices to be heard in order to achieve a consensus. Listening, allowing others to speak, and raising the level of public discourse funnels a people’s dreams and aspirations into a single national agenda.”
Open government… without an FOI law
Aquino flew to the US to attend the launch of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a multilateral initiative promoting transparency. The Philippines is one of only two Asian countries chosen to be part of the OGP steering committee, along with Indonesia. Other members are the US, Brazil, South Africa, Norway, the United Kingdom and Mexico.
Aquino touted his administration’s work. “We speak of opening up government to the people; making government a truly democratic space, allowing citizens access to its processes, and in fact encouraging them to participate in these processes.”
But for groups supporting the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill, the problem is that the president’s efforts seem to end with speaking. They accuse him of flip-flopping on his campaign promise to push for the measure. The Palace is drafting its own version of the bill, saying it wants to balance the right to know and the need for secrecy.
The Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition argued, “On the home front, we do not find credible basis for President Aquino to beat his breast as an exemplar of transparency and open government in the world.”
“The Philippine Action Plan for OGP needs to express full, firm and explicit commitment to the immediate passage of the FOI law … Failing in this, we call a spade a spade: double-talk is the Aquino government’s FOI policy,” the group added.
The action plan is a roadmap aiming to ensure the country is at par with international transparency standards. The Philippines’ draft action plan was silent on the FOI.
The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, a member of the Coalition, also criticized Aquino’s government for reportedly providing a copy of the draft action plan to international bodies before releasing it locally.
“The irony of ‘open’ is we have to mine websites from faraway Estados Unidos to be able to know more about how our government plans or promises to be more transparent.”
Open for business… but not quite
Another slogan Aquino constantly harps on while abroad is “The Philippines is again open for business.”
Addressing the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Aquino said his tuwid na daan (straight and narrow path) approach to governance benefits the economy. “Governing with integrity, with transparency and accountability not only heals a national psyche that has long been characterized by its cynicism and mistrust of government. It also provides the foundation for equitable progress.”
In an analysis, Reuters pointed out that while Aquino generates interest in the economy, corruption, legal inconsistency, and red tape still discourage investors from coming to the Philippines.
“The challenge is to create an environment — regulatory, legal and investment — that turns the interest into reality …. That will depend on issues such as airport facilities and links, quality of local roads and infrastructure, and dealing with different levels of government.”
Malacañang announced that Aquino got a US$15-million investment pledge after meeting with US firms. Analysts say the chief executive will have to follow through on his soundbites to realize this pledge and attract even more.