Freedom of information

Advocates slam PCOO order blocking ‘malicious, vexatious’ FOI requests

Michelle Abad
Advocates slam PCOO order blocking ‘malicious, vexatious’ FOI requests
The PCOO's memorandum circular allows agency officials to make citizens modify FOI requests – or even to deny them – if a request is deemed 'vexatious'

Citizen advocates on Monday, December 28, slammed and called to revoke new guidelines from the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) that would allow government officials to set back or deny freedom of information (FOI) requests deemed to be “vexatious.”

The PCOO in its Memorandum Circular (MC) No. 5 said that there was “a growing number of reports of vexatious requests” that it claims “disenfranchise citizens with legitimate requests as well as add unnecessary burden to the affected government agencies’ operations.”

The MC did not explain this in detail, according to citizen advocate group Right to Know, Right Now (R2KRN) Coalition.

It defines an FOI to be “vexatious” if it is “frivolous, malicious, made in bad faith, intends to harass, vilify, or embarrass, and poses an actual or imminent danger to the office, its officials, or employees.”

Officials make the calls

If an agency official finds a request “vexatious,” the official could ask the requester to either clarify or modify the request, or deny it if such clarification or modification fails.

Since President Rodrigo Duterte’s signed Executive Order (EO) No. 2 on the Freedom of Information in July 2016, the public has been allowed to request for documents and records under the executive branch.

But R2KRN said this new MC disrupts what is outlined in the EO, since the latter does not define “vexatious requests” nor does it allow officials to call the shots on what is vexatious or not.

“Just as important, EO No. 2 does not empower agency officials to gaslight requests for their facetious reading of how these might ‘intend to harass, vilify, or embarrass, and poses an actual or imminent danger to the office, its officials or employees,'” said R2KRN.

‘Little evidence’ of vexatious requests

R2K2N said there is “little evidence” that state agencies have been burdened by vexatious requests in the last 4 years of the FOI order’s implementation.

From 2016 to 2019, government agencies denied 34.1% of all FOI requests, according to R2KRN – for reasons including the requests were filed with the wrong agencies, the information was already available online, the requests were incomplete, and some were covered by exceptions.

“FOI requests for the salaries and the travel budget incurred by PCOO assistant secretaries and other Duterte appointees might seem to PCOO to be ‘vexatious’ – but all still fall within the information that all agencies are obliged to disclose to citizens,” the group said.

The advocates said PCOO “overstepped” in its jurisdiction by exercising discretion on how its employees must discharge their duties – a domain reserved for the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees.

The Public Services Labor Independent Confederation (PSLINK), a coalition working with government workers, has also not raised any concerns about FOI requests that have burdened the civil servants.

Why this matters

Even as the signing of Duterte’s EO No. 2 became a critical milestone for advocates, its implementation has not always been smooth.

R2KRN earlier said problems included many requests were not being heeded or acknowledged. There was also a reported lack of coordination among agencies, “confusion” in the appreciation of FOI exemptions, and discretion “some agencies seem to exercise when it comes to releasing information they think should not be in the hands of the public.”

While some agencies did improve in supplying information, others remained laggards. One of those who had not complied in the past include the Philippine National Police.

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Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a researcher-writer at Rappler. Possessing the heart and soul of a feminist, she is working on specializing in women's issues in Newsbreak, Rappler's investigative arm.