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CEBU, Philippines – On World Press Freedom Day, Cebu City’s journalists asked an important question: Why hasn’t the city government implemented its Freedom of Information (FOI) Ordinance?
City Ordinance No. 2657, also known as the FOI Ordinance, is a special piece of local legislation that ensures citizens would be able to access information, whether public records or documents, about official acts, transactions, data, and the like under the custody of city hall.
Cebu City Mayor Mike Rama signed the ordinance on July 28, 2022, which was authored by his nephew, then-councilor, and now Cebu City-South District Representative Eduardo Rama Jr.
Based on the ordinance, each office city hall is required to designate an FOI receiving officer tasked with accommodating requests for information filed through their office.
But in a forum organized by the Cebu Citizens’ Press Council on Wednesday, May 3, Cebu City Councilor Rey Gealon confirmed that no designated FOI receiving officers have been appointed in any of city hall’s offices.
Gealon, who chairs the city council’s committee on laws, emphasized the need to appoint an FOI receiving officer for all 27 departments to comply with the FOI ordinance.
Gealon said there was also a need to amend the FOI ordinance so that it would include the list of exceptions that the Cebu City Legal Office (CLO) crafted and submitted to the council on January 31.
These proposed exceptions include information related to national security, those covered by executive privilege, information classified as confidential for the safety of minors and victims of heinous crimes, and information related to public safety and law enforcement, to name a few.
A journalist’s perspective
For former city hall beat reporter Mildred Galarpe, now the digital media director of SunStar Cebu, the ordinance could affect the reportage in many difficult ways.
“In the past, it was easy for us to ask for documents. It would just be given. Now that the FOI ordinance was introduced, it’s supposed to give us ease of access to information, but it seems to be harder,” Galarpe said.
Section 10 of the ordinance provides that anyone who asks for information must submit a written request to the FOI receiving officer before getting any official document. A maximum of 15 days is allowed for the office to respond to the request and can be extended up to 20 working days if the information requested requires “an extensive search of the office’s records facilities.”
“By the time that document is released, it won’t just be way past the deadline but there were already other developments that that information would reach irrelevancy,” Galarpe said.
Galarpe said the FOI would only help provide documents but no insights and analysis from news sources in the event an executive order that would prevent officials from giving interviews would be implemented.
“How will you reconcile that? … You cannot just interpret it on your own,” Galarpe said.
Lawyer Pachico Seares, the head of the Cebu Citizens’ Press Council, told Rappler that journalists and residents will still need the ordinance.
“When worse comes to worst, we have something to use… If they refuse to release even an ordinance that is not very important, we can push them,” Seares said.
Picking up the pace
While it is unclear to Gealon why there has been a delay, he assured journalists that he would file a resolution on Thursday, May 4, urging the executive body to install FOI receiving officers in every department and office.
Cerwin Eviota, the former head of the Public Information Office (PIO) and now the mayor’s special assistant for communications, was expected to speak during the forum and explain the local public information officer’s role as the “FOI Focal Person.” He was unable to attend due to health reasons.
Based on Section 9 of the FOI Ordinance, the FOI focal person would be responsible for developing the standard forms for the FOI requests and monitoring such requests.
Estela Grace “Jinky” Rosit, the head of city hall’s PIO, told Rappler that she was also unable to attend due to a “very important assignment” but promised to release more details on the matter soon.
In the meantime, Gealon informed the public that they can still access information by reaching out to the concerned offices.
Rappler’s Visayas Bureau checked with the Sangguniang Panglungsod’s records office which provided a free copy of the FOI ordinance on the same day of the request. – Rappler.com
John Sitchon is an Aries Rufo Journalism fellow.