STATEMENT OF THE RIGHT TO KNOW, RIGHT NOW! COALITION
We are not living in ordinary times. Attempts at impeachment have been initiated targetting several of our top officials, part of the country is under Martial rule, there are aborted clandestine entry of illegal drugs amidst the relentless and bloody war on drugs, and fake news and lies proliferate. The nation witnessed several protest actions across the country calling on government to uphold the Constitution and strengthen, not threaten, the rule of law and the rights of the people.
Against this backdrop, while so much has changed since July 2016, still there is no FOI Law today.
The issuance of EO No. 2 ("Operationalizing In The Executive Branch The People’s Constitutional Right To Information And The State Policies To Full Public Disclosure And Transparency In The Public Service And Providing Guidelines Therefor") more than a year ago promised to usher in an era of more government transparency and accountaibility, and the Right to Know. Right Now! Coalition took it as a signal of the commitment of the Duterte Administration to respect and promote the people's right to access information in the Executive Branch. With its issuance, too, the Coalition was hopeful that the passage of the long overdue FOI Law would be hastened.
The R2KRN acknowledges the hard work of allies from inside the Government. However, this appears more to us as the only consistent bright spot in a dimming future of the full and meaningful enjoyment of the citizen’s right to information.
Still Mixed Performance
On a procedural level, despite the issuance of the EO which would have given a sense of uniformity and predictability, coalition members are discouraged by the inconsistent appreciation of the citizens’ right to know.
Based on the third round of the R2KRN’s FOI Practice project covering 20 regulatory, financial or otherwise high-interest agencies, only three out of five (56%) documents/datasets requested were granted in full. One in four (26%) was incomplete or not released at all.
There were instances of requests not being heeded, and certain request formats being favored over others. While most agencies breached the 15-working day response period, only one agency officialy asked for an extension. Many agencies did not acknowledge requests, had less than ideal coordination among offices holding information, or had wanting customer service which would have been helpful for requesters.
On a substantive level, coalition members continue to note that there is still confusion on the appreciation of exceptions. Some agencies exercise wide discretion when it comes to information they think should not be in the hands of the public. Juxtaposed against recent pronouncements – for instance, the witholding of access to the Philippine National Police spot reports, and a worrisome practice emerges.
Regression by Redaction
More disturbing, the epidemic of redacting way too much information and pitting the right to information against the right to privacy is on the rise.
A request for the statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs) of the members of the Duterte Cabinet was met with ubiquitous redaction of details rendering deeper analysis of the documents virtually impossible. The seemingly extreme concern for privacy and security makes a mockery of the FOI EO, and creates a perverse privileging of privacy over transparency.
If these are not arrested, the right will be negated altogether and the EO will simply be a mere scrap of paper.
FOI Law Off the Agenda?
The fight for the passage of the law is far from over.
At present, the bill continues to linger in the Committee on Appropriations in the House of Representatives. There is more hope in the Senate, as the process entered the period of interpellation.
There are, however, ominous signs that signal rough sailing for FOI. In the Lower House, all controversial bills, including FOI, are supposed to go through a (super-) TWG before they are transmitted to the Rules Committee. This is a new and unnecessary layer (the measure has been amply discussed and debated in the Committee on Public Information) that serves no clear purpose except to impose an additional hurdle to the bill’s passage.
Finally, there is glaring silence on FOI in the administration’s agenda, the law’s passage not being a major component of the Governance section of the Philippine Development Plan. Worse, it has fallen off the priority legislative measures.
Finding a Path for FOI
It is time to recover a clear agenda for FOI.
We recognize that, despite the Constitutional guarantee, EO No. 2 remains a new mandate that the bureaucracy has to get used to. Such an important mandate cannot be treated as just another load, and suffer from inconsistent implementation. Varying appreciation of and confusion over EO No. 2 places government employees tasked to receive and process requests in a vulnerable and precarious situation, making them likely to be the subject of complaints from the public. FOI is both an administrative and political mandate, the responsibility for which does not rest on frontline civil servants alone, and requires a comprehensive program of implementation. It needs clear and organized mechanisms, including capacity building and responsible offices. We commit to working with the various agencies of Government on this, focusing on substantive compliance, consistency and institutionalization.
We also commit to remain vigilant on the substantive and political issues attendant to EO No. 2 and to the right to information generally.
We will keep the push to arrest the erosion of the people’s right to know by thwarting attempts to pit it against the right to privacy. We maintain that, where public office and public interest are concerned, the assumption should be in favor of disclosure.
To cement the people’s right to know and settle whatever questions remain, more than ever, in these precarious times, do we truly see the need tobring FOI back in the legislative agenda. Only with the passage of the law and only when agencies meaningfully facilitate the people’s constitutionally guaranteed right to information can we really say that we are moving forward in breathing life into FOI.