Enacting a good Freedom of Information (FOI) bill is one of the most urgent and long overdue reforms that policymakers can do to enhance governance, make government transactions more transparent, and hold public officials more accountable for their actions.
This is not just our thinking. It is the recommendation of the policy paper “Pushing for Greater Transparency and Accountability through Freedom of Information,” released by the Congressional Policy and Budget Research Department (CPBRD) of the House of Representatives.
While he was a candidate for president, Mr. Aquino promised the people that one of his first priorities would be the passage of the FOI Act that would require the government to open public records to public scrutiny. He has reneged on that vow. Eighteen days ago, on August 28, as our headline said, he “tosse[d]FOI bill passage to Congress.”
Enacting this law will improve governance because with greater transparency and accountability, “people in government can be held accountable for their actions and decisions,” the CPBRD paper says.
Without such a law, “it would be difficult to determine whether the promised services/outcomes were economically, efficiently and effectively delivered.”
The right to information is already guaranteed in the Philippine Constitution, but the problem is that it is “subject to limitations.” The FOI law will give teeth to the exercise of that right.
An FOI Act, as authored by Rep. Erwin Tañada and which nearly passed three years ago, is what a truly democratic Philippines needs.
Congressmen who really want our country to be better-governed, less corrupt and more prosperous are working to get the FOI bill passed.
But now we see a new effort to keep the FOI bill in limbo. Some congressmen want the FOI bill to include the extraneous matter of “Right of Reply (RoR).”
We completely share the stand of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) expressed in the following statement:
On the recent online poll conducted by Congress: Say no for free expression’s sake
The tug of war on whether to include a Right of Reply (RoR) provision in the consolidated version of the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill has gone online.
The House of Representatives’ website (http://congress.gov.ph/) has recently uploaded an online poll which states that while the proposed Freedom of Information (FOI) bill seeks to empower all Filipinos access to public spending records and other documents that involves public interest, “several lawmakers” insist that the FOI bill should include a “right of reply” provision.
The right of reply provision, the online poll added, will require mainstream media groups to “allot airtime or print media space to aggrieved parties or to those claiming to be unjustly placed in a bad light by news stories.”
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, along with media organizations and groups, have vigorously fought against the RoR bill before and even more for its inclusion in the FOI bill.
We maintain that media have always recognized the right of reply as a legitimate right of citizens. However, including this as a provision in the FOI bill will be tantamount to prior restraint. It will subsume the editorial prerogative of media entities to decide which stories to print, air, or upload.
A right of reply provision will also send a chilling effect on news coverage, coming at the expense of discouraging critical reporting and weakening public discourse—the cornerstone of a democratic society.
We enjoin all advocates of freedom of expression to go online and vote “NO” so that once and for all our lawmakers will realize that we will not sit idly by and let them impinge upon our constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of the press and of expression.