Freedom of Information, the Press and Civil Society

25 March 2010| CCJD |Davao City |by: Red Batario
 
A Forum on the Freedom of Information Bill:
Gearing Towards Social Accountability and Transparency

While the Philippines, among South East Asian countries, enjoys wider latitude when it comes to basic rights like freedom of speech, expression and information, the poor still are chained to the shackles of ignorance.  Aside from organized citizens groups and people’s organizations, a large majority of poor Filipinos are unable to claim their rights simply because they don’t know how and what these are.

 The legacy of martial rule, when information was kept secret by the State in paranoid attempts to shore up the regime, obviously has lingering effects.  For instance, community journalists working in the provinces complain that government agencies would routinely refer them to national or regional offices when they try to obtain documents that are in the public realm.  Others say that they are being charged exorbitant fees for statistical data. These are very clear examples of how access to information can be arbitrarily denied.  What about ordinary folk who need the information to guide them in their transactions with government?

 “Filipinos have a history of being kept in the dark by government.  It was a situation they endured during the more than three centuries of Spanish rule, for half a century under the Americans, and then the Japanese.  Decades after independence, Marcos would impose his own ‘information blackout’ on his people,” says journalist Yvonne Chua in the book, The Right to Know: Access to Information in Southeast Asia.

 While it has no law on freedom of information, the 1987 Philippine Constitution guarantees the people’s right to information. Article III, Section 7 of the Bill of Rights thus states: “The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized.  Access to official records, and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to limitations as may be provided by law.”

 Article 2 Section 28 also mandates the State to adopt and implement “a policy of full disclosure of all transactions involving public interest.”

 The Constitution further provides that the following documents should be open to the public: journal of proceedings, records and the books of Congress; information on foreign loans; and statements of assets and liabilities of civil servants.  It also requires government offices to submit annual reports within 45 working days from the close of the year and to deposit copies of them with the National Archives.

What is the importance of a freedom of information act for media, civil society and citizens?

 The freedom of the press, of speech and of expression, as well as the right to petition the government for redress of grievances can only be fully and responsibly exercised by an informed press and citizenry.  The same is true for the right of the people and their organizations to effective and reasonable participation at all levels of social, political, and economic decision making, as provided for in Article XIII, Section 16 of the Constitution.

 The lack of implementing legislation on the right to information and the policy of full disclosure of all transactions involving public interest translates into the routine violation by government agencies of the people’s right to know. This harms not only the individual interest of citizens, but the collective interest of society as a whole.

 The lack of transparency in government likewise impedes the country’s development and relates directly to pervasive and rampant corruption that has been weighing down Philippine economic performance.  To a large extent, this also compromises the quality and effectiveness of government policies at all levels.

 “The usefulness of information for redressing social inequity and correcting long-standing grievances has been demonstrated, even if only on a small scale, in countries where grassroots organizations have been able to demand an accounting of public funds and check on the ineptness and corruption of those who rule them. Information has in fact been crucial to anti-corruption campaigns.  No one contests that informed citizens and a watchdog press are an effective check against the excesses of those who wield power.  Governments cannot be held accountable if citizens are ill-informed about the actions of officials and institutions,” says journalist and Ramon Magsaysay awardee Sheila Coronel.

 When is access to information denied? Denial of access comes in many forms. These are but a few instances, according to the Access to Information Network (ATIN):

  • In early 2008, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo issued Presidential Proclamation 1017 that sought to limit the functions of the press to obtain and report on issues that ostensibly would imperil national security 
  • The government refused to release the text of the proposed agreement during negotiations of the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA)
  • Civil society groups and the media were denied access to the report of retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. on electoral reforms
  • Refusal to release documents relating to various loan agreements and government contracts such as the NBN-ZTE deal
  • Initial refusal to release the report of the Independent Commission to Address Media and Activist Killings
  • Difficulty of media organizations in accessing the Statements of Assets and Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) of justices of the Supreme Court, high ranking officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and political appointees as experienced by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and other news outfits 

In many instances, despite repeated follow-ups and phone calls, access was denied for the following incredible reasons:

  • No one is authorized to release the data because of the absence or non-availability of the spokesperson or head of agency
  • The information is covered by “executive privilege”
  • Officials question the motives of the journalist as well as her or his capacity to understand the data requested
  • Disclosure of the data may turn the public against the officials or put these officials at risk of extortion, kidnapping, and blackmail for adverse decisions and rulings

While a number of journalists are continually trying to push the envelope in expanding access to public information, public interest groups would want to see “more journalists asserting this right by testing the procedures set by law instead of treating access to information as a privilege,” noted Chua in Access to Information inSoutheast Asia.

 Chua quoted Nepomuceno Malaluan of the Action for Economic Reforms and lead convener of the Access to Information Network and the Right to Know, Right Now campaign as saying, “Many media practitioners nurture information sources within the bureaucracy who then become accessible exclusively to them.  This practice only abets the problem, for it perpetuates the system of relying on information leaks for vital matters to be brought to the people’s attention.”

 Many journalists also have problems distinguishing between public and non-public records and often very little about procedures in filing requests for access to public documents, how much more the available remedies in case the request is denied.

 A law that provides for a uniform, simple and speedy procedure for accessing information can address many of these problems.  Without it the government and its agencies can use the absence of standards and uniform procedures to frustrate the exercise of the right to information. 

 The Supreme Court in ruling favorably in a case filed by a group of journalists against the Government Service and Insurance System (GSIS) for failing to release information about loans it had made, put this in a nutshell: “Denied access to information on the inner workings of government, the citizenry can become prey to the whims and caprices of those to whom power has been delegated.”

 This underlines the importance of information and the involvement of media and citizens in exercising their right. In a number of instances, the Philippine press has demonstrated a strong but somewhat inconsistent capacity to focus on wrongdoing and malfeasance in the public sector.  It was through dogged journalism and concerted action of civil society that Joseph Estrada was ousted from the presidency in January 2001 after an aborted impeachment trial. 

 With solid information to back up their extensive reporting, Filipino journalists, wittingly or unwittingly, galvanized the collective rage of citizens who otherwise would have remained on the sidelines without the kind of information they had on their hands. 

 As a people it is our inherent right to know what the government is doing, what it plans to do, how and when it plans to do it, who it plans to do it with and for whom, and why it is doing it.  After all, there can be no democracy when there is no free flow of information.  Information can become a catalyst for transformation while the lack of it can throw us back to a regime of stifled expression and development stagnation.

 There is no better time than now to claim that most basic of rights, our right to know.

_______________________________

Red Batario is the Executive Director of the Center for Community Journalism and Development (CCJD), a non-profit, non-government media organization that functions as a facility for journalists working with citizens, communities and institutions for social change.  He is also the Regional Coordinator for Asia-Pacific of the London-based International News Safety Institute (INSI) which looks after the protection of journalists worldwide.

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