MANILA, Philippines – “Ang Pilipino ay hindi tanga. Nagmumukha lang tayong tanga dahil kulang tayo sa sapat na impormasyon.” (The Filipino is not stupid. We just appear stupid because we lack sufficient information.)
Senator Grace Poe reiterated her call for the passage of the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill, this time arguing that the controversy surrounding the administration’s Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) showed the need for a law that will institutionalize transparency in government.
“Can you imagine, if we have the FOI, even before the money was spent, the [Department of Budget and Management] would be compelled to present and post the projects beforehand, not just after the fact,” Poe said in a forum co-organized by Rappler on Monday, July 21, at the Mind Museum in Taguig.
The principal sponsor of the Senate version of the measure, Poe was the keynote speaker at the forum titled “State of the FOI bill,” organized in partnership with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.
Poe was referring to the DBM’s belated release of the complete and consolidated list of projects under the DAP, posted only on July 14 or months after the controversy first broke out in September 2013.
Another speaker in the forum, Rappler research and content strategist Gemma Bagayaua Mendoza, agreed with Poe. (READ: Why the Philippines needs a Freedom of Information law)
“While the Aquino administration has indeed undertaken efforts to make budget information more transparent, information that finally came out following the controversy over the DAP clearly show that much about government financial transactions are still hidden from the public eye,” Mendoza said.
Watch her present presents the findings from a research conducted by Rappler which compares FOI policies in 15 countries as well as the impact of such policies on those countries.
The Aquino administration drew flak over its stimulus program DAP following a Supreme Court decision declaring key acts under it unconstitutional. President Benigno Aquino III argued that the DAP boosted the economy and benefited citizens, but critics and observers pointed out this claim would only be proven if the administration releases all documents and details of the DAP projects.
Lawyer Nepomuceno Malaluan of the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition pointed out that it took the budget department 9 months to release information on DAP to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), with PCIJ saying the data finally given fell short of its requests.
Incidentally, Aquino ally Senate President Franklin Drilon on Monday urged the department to release all documents on DAP like the Special Allotment Release Order (SARO) of the projects lawmakers endorsed.
“These are public records and it is only right that the public be given access to these documents so that they can scrutinize and find out if public funds were indeed put for public use,” Drilon said.
The FOI bill aims to institutionalize the constitutionally guaranteed right to information by establishing a process by which citizens can access government data and records. The bill has been languishing in Congress for over a decade despite a campaign promise of Aquino to pass the measure.
The Senate already passed its version of the measure in March, but the bill is still at the committee level in the House of Representatives. Last week, Aquino said the FOI will be passed before his term ends in 2016.
Photo by Ayee Macaraig/Rappler
Would FOI have prevented corruption scam?
Poe applied the idea of the so-called wisdom of the crowd to FOI, saying that the bill does not just aim to prevent graft and corruption but also to empower citizens to be more involved in governance.
"I sense that resistance to FOI by some quarters of our society really emanates from this “misappreciation” of the crowd and the misconception that FOI will be disruptive to government operations at best, “mob rule” at worst. The most serious challenge, therefore, to FOI is the conventional wisdom that the Filipino people do not know any better, that for our country to develop, our people must be governed by a well-educated, well-born, elite few,” she said.
Camarines Sur Representative Leni Robredo, an FOI co-author, admitted that the House has been “dragging its heels” on the bill, with over 30 authors having to come up with a consolidated version. Still, she said the measure is now moving in the committee, where she seeks to enhance the bill.
“In my version, we are set to introduce 3 more provisions on open data to make the FOI more supply-driven. Even without requests, the government will be required to upload [information],” Robredo said.
In a panel discussion, moderator John Nery of the Philippine Daily Inquirer asked the speakers whether or not the FOI would have prevented the pork barrel corruption scandal involving millions of pesos in lawmakers’ development funds.
Robredo said that before the Supreme Court struck down the congressional pork barrel, lawmakers used it as a political tool, giving projects only to officials supporting them.
“If the FOI were in place in 2006, I think we could have prevented much of the scam. People would have information on the projects lawmakers identified, why only some NGOs received funds, but because we didn’t have information, we weren’t able to react at all,” she said.
Photo by Ayee Macaraig/Rappler
‘Make FOI a gut issue for people’
Panelists though said that the FOI is not only about fighting corruption but also relates to issues like human rights, environmental protection, and transparency in the financial and banking sectors.
“Governments are reluctant to release information for fear of criticism,” said Dr Juli Minoves, president of Liberal International. “That’s a normal, human fear but it’s the price of democracy and politicians need to learn to live with it. If you put yourself out there, you are accountable.”
German Ambassador Thomas Ossowski echoed his view. “It’s about implementation. You cannot just have this right in the Constitution. You need a law so that citizens can have access.”
Still, Neric Acosta, former Bukidnon representative, said that the challenge for advocates is to link FOI with poverty and corruption to make it more relevant to people.
Robredo said this is what her husband, the late Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, did as mayor of Naga City.
“People only appreciated the transparency measures when it was done in real terms. Naga produced a citizens’ charter on government services, and published a book where all essential services of the city are printed in chart form. They know how much time it would take to ask for services,” she said.
Vergel Santos of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) said the media also bears responsibility.
“I'm wondering why there's no play-by-play, revealing account on Congress deliberations on FOI. Why has media been short in reporting on the debates on FOI, on the vested interests?”
In response, ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC) news manager Nadia Trinidad said that the media must frame the FOI as a gut issue.
“I think the answer depends on how enterprising the media is. Beyond what happened and the walkouts, the media must take the time to digest the information and dig through data like the budget. The FOI is only as effective as the kind of media you have.” – Rappler.com