Malacañang favors reducing exemptions on the proposed Freedom of Information (FOI) bill to 10 but warned of privacy breach if the bill becomes law.
Assistant Secretary Kristian Ablan of the Presidential Communications Office made the apparently contradictory statements during the first hearing on the proposed FOI bill conducted by the House Committee on Public Information headed by Rep. Antonio Tinio of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers party-list group.
“What the Office of the President wants is to limit the exemptions to not more than 10, following the example of other countries [that]implement FOI, i.e., Australia and the US, which have nine. The Office of the Executive Secretary is trying to put the 166 [initial exemptions]under 10 digestible sections for the public,” Ablan told lawmakers.
These exemptions provided under the Australian and American FOI laws include: documents on national security/defense, law enforcement, Cabinet matters, trade secrets, confidential documents, electoral polls, those exempted under statues, personal information and oil data.
“We are also looking at [an FOI law]having a provision on mosaic effect. If one agency releases an information [under the FOI law], it would not violate the Data Privacy Act but, if the bits and pieces of information on an individual were released by different agencies, it could create a profile [that]would be against the [right to]privacy of the person,” Ablan said.
“We are working on the wordings on acknowledging this [under the FOI law]. Different agencies should be cautious in releasing information that could contribute to the mosaic effect,” he added.
But for lawyer Irene Aguila of the Right to Know Right Now Network, a coalition of 150 organizations advocating passage of the FOI bill, an FOI law should facilitate access to information, not restrict it.
“We should have a clear definition when it comes to exemptions. There should be nothing too restrictive but [something that]still recognizes the established exemptions under jurisprudence and those generally accepted ones,” Aguila said.
She cited the existing Memorandum Circular (MC) 78 dating back to 1964, which provides for classification of government documents, should not be made iron-clad under the FOI law.
“If the interplay with MC 78 isn’t clear, then it could obliterate whatever benefit the FOI [law]would bring. We would encourage the possibility of redaction instead of removing the entire document from the ambit of the public,” Aguila pointed out.
“There should also be declassifying of information. The classification of documents should not be perpetual in nature. They should be made available to public after a certain period of time,” she said.
Ablan, however, assured that the Duterte administration is committed to facilitating access to information of public interests and is in fact already working on an e-FOI program on government agencies under the executive branch–an initiative that will be tied up to the Open Data program started by the Aquino administration.
The e-FOI project will allow the public to request information from government agencies online.
The e-FOI will cover at least 10 agencies: Department of Justice, Department of Budget and Management, Department of Finance, Department of Transportation, Department of Health, Department of Information and Communications Technology, Philippine National Police, Philippine Statistics Authority, National Archives and the Presidential Communications Office.
“The e-FOI will see to it that our frontlines, the agencies, will not be burdened with so many FOI requests, which they may not be able to handle immediately,” Ablan said.
“There will be a pro-active approach. We will be encouraging government agencies to disclose information as much as possible so that our frontline services will not be burdened with requests. And with Open Data available [for voluntary disclosure], there will be FOI requests that will be addressed readily because they are already available online [under Open Data],” Ablan said.