Despite graft poll, Palace won’t certify FOI urgent

Eight out of 10 businessmen say an FOI law will help reduce corruption, but the Palace says the administration has promoted transparency in some other ways

Chart from 2013 SWS Survey of Enterprises on Corruption

MANILA, Philippines – A survey showing more businessmen saw corruption in government and expressing support for the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill did not convince Malacañang to certify the measure urgent.

Senate President Franklin Drilon and 88% of respondents of a Social Weather Stations (SWS) corruption survey said a strong FOI law will be key to fighting corruption, and redeeming the image of agencies like the Senate.

Yet Palace Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr said President Benigno Aquino III still cannot push his allies in Congress to ensure its passage.

“The President abides by the Constitution. Certifying bills urgent is only allowed under specific instances that’s why the President has always been circumspect in the use of this power,” Coloma said in a press briefing on Thursday, January 16.

The 1987 Constitution states that the President can certify bills urgent “to meet a public calamity or emergency.” Bills certified urgent are given priority in deliberations, and may be passed on second and third reading on the same day.

The secretary’s comments came a day after SWS released its 2013 Survey of Enterprises on Corruption, showing that 56% of 951 businessmen saw “a lot” of corruption in government, rising from the record-low of 43% in 2012. The 2013 figure though is still the second-lowest since 2000.

The survey was conducted from July 31 to November 29, at the height of the pork barrel scam, where lawmakers allegedly funneled funds for priority projects for the poor to fake non-governmental organizations in exchange for millions of pesos in kickbacks. (VISIT: Pork Tales: A story of corruption)

The number of the businessmen who said corruption will be reduced by the passage of a strong FOI law went up from 78% in 2009 to 88% in 2013.

Of the government agencies surveyed, the Senate suffered the biggest downgrade in the sincerity in fighting corruption. From a “good” +36 in 2012, the Senate ratings plunged to a “neutral” -8 in 2013. In 2009, the Senate had a “neutral” -1.

While Drilon vowed to ensure the passage of the FOI bill in the first quarter of 2014 as part of the Senate’s “anti-corruption and reformist agenda,” the hurdle has traditionally been in the House of Representatives. The Senate already passed the FOI bill in past Congresses. 

Still, Coloma said the Aquino administration already “implemented the principles of FOI in concrete measures” and the fate of the law is up to the legislators.

“We recognize the principle in the Constitution regarding the different duties of each branch of government, and the passage of the law is the primary function of the lawmakers,” Coloma said.

The Palace spokesman cited the administration’s initiatives to “give life to FOI,” including the performance-based bonuses of government employees where they cannot get incentives if their agency does not have the Seal of Transparency.

Coloma explained that the seal entails the disclosure of vital information, including fund releases and procurement.

Aquino also launched on Wednesday the Open Government Data-Philippines, an online platform that makes available government data, including those pertaining to budget and procurement.

“The government has done all concrete actions in relation to the principle of freedom of information even without a law. So no one can say that this administration does not believe in the principle of Freedom of Information,” Coloma said.

Languishing in Congress for over a decade, the FOI bill aims to institutionalize the right to know and policy of public disclosure enshrined in the Constitution by providing a system for ordinary citizens to access government documents and information.

Malacañang declared the FOI bill a priority measure in 2013, 3 years after Aquino made a campaign promise to push for its passage. 

‘Anti-corruption bills to vindicate Senate’

Besides the FOI bill, anti-corruption bills will help restore public trust in the Senate, Drilon said.

He cited the amendments to the Sandiganbayan Law to speed up the disposition of cases bogging down the anti-graft court, and the amendments to the Ombudsman Act. He also said the chamber will push for the passage of the Whistleblowers’ Act and improvements to the Witness Protection Program.

“Only genuine reforms which can be instituted through appropriate legislation would truly vindicate the Senate back into its status as an honored and trusted public institution,” Drilon said in a statement on Thursday.

The Senate President said the institution started the reforms last year with the abolition of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or congressional pork barrel, and the probe into the pork barrel scam.

Yet the Senate and the House of Representatives drew flak for realigning their PDAF to line agencies and local government units, a practice that analysts said showed that the pork barrel still lives on.

Aside from the institution, Drilon suffered a beating due to the pork barrel scam. In a Pulse Asia survey released earlier this week, Drilon’s approval ratings dropped 7 points from 50% in September to 43% in December.

The Senate President was photographed with alleged scam mastermind Janet Lim Napoles but said she was just an acquiantance. Newspaper reports said Napoles was a campaign funder of his ruling Liberal Party, a charge Drilon denied. He also drew criticism for initiatlly refusing to sign a subpoena ordering Napoles to appear in the Senate investigation on the scam. (READ: Drilon met Napoles in socials ‘less than 10’ times and Drilon, senators clash on Napoles testimony)

For Senator Sergio “Serge” Osmeña III, the findings on the Senate was not surprising. 

“With the PDAF scandal, nakakahiya talaga (it’s really embarrassing). If I were the public, I would throw mud at the Senate,” he quipped. 

‘Balanced findings’

Coloma said the perception that a lot of businessmen saw corruption was “balanced” by the perception that the government is taking steps to eradicate corruption.

In the SWS survey, those with extensive knowledge of the administration’s anti-corruption efforts fell slightly to 35% in 2013, from 37% in 2012.

Coloma though pointed to the Philippines’ improved ranking in the global Doing Business 2014 report, and Transparency International report, saying these surveys gave “a complete perspective” and the SWS study is “not isolated.”  

Other key findings of the SWS survey are as follows:

  • 42% say “most/almost all” companies in their own sector of business gave bribes to win government contracts, practically the same as the record-low 41% in 2012
  • Those saying the administration’s steps to eradicate corruption are “somewhat/very effective” fell slightly to 73% in 2013, from 78% in 2012
  • Those saying that government “often/almost always” punishes corrupt government officials fell to 20% in 2013, from 27% in 2012
  • The Bureau of Customs is the only agency with “very bad” (-63) net sincerity rating in fighting corruption, downgraded from “bad” (-46) in 2012
  • The Office of the President maintained its “excellent” rating at +77 in 2013 from +80 in 2012, after a “bad” -37 in 2009
  • The House of Representatives downgraded from “neutral” -6 in 2012 to “poor” -28 in 2013, after a “bad” -34 in 2009.

You can access the full survey findings here:

– Rappler.com