ONE of the criticisms leveled against President BS Aquino 3rd almost as soon as he finally closed his mouth after his painfully-long State of the Nation Address on Monday was that he omitted any mention of the Freedom of Information bill, two versions of which are currently languishing in the Legislature.
The Freedom of Information law, we should not forget, was the single coherent campaign promise made by then-Senator Aquino during his quest for the presidency in 2010. And it was a promise that he broke immediately upon assuming office by first trying to convince everyone that his “clean” government made it unnecessary, and then by applying his influence in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to stymie any progress on the law in Congress.
Obviously stung by the criticism, Aquino made a hasty about-face on Tuesday, the day after the SONA, by suddenly declaring the FOI a “priority,” even contriving a sense of urgency to the matter by suggesting that the bill’s prospects were dim unless it were passed within the short time left in his term.
Aquino’s off-handed treatment of the FOI bill should make it clear enough that he and his regime do not understand nor have any respect for the concept of “transparency,” but if one needs further evidence, all one needs to do is to attempt to read or download a copy of the “SONA Technical Report” from the Official Gazette website, or for that matter, any other government website.
The Technical Report is a collection of background information that provides greater detail about the facts and figures presented in the speech itself. It is not, however, what one would assume it is – a version of the notes used by the speechwriters to craft the actual speech – but rather a sanitized appendix put together later. Even so, it is useful for fact-checking and putting many of the assertions made in the speech in the proper context.
Until now, the Technical Report – since it is information crafted for public consumption – has been available the next day, sometimes earlier. This year, however, as of yesterday morning, three days after the SONA, the Technical Report was still not available.
If President BS Aquino 3rd was actually serious at all about “transparency” and being accountable to his “bosses” – an honorific that he actually manages to make sound like an insult – he would not have forgotten the FOI in the SONA in the first place. He would have acknowledged it as an important piece of unfinished business, and reassured the people that he intended to at least make an honest effort to keep his word, rather than treating it as a minor detail that slipped his mind, like forgetting to write “laundry soap” on the shopping list.
If President BS Aquino 3rd were actually serious at all about “transparency” and being accountable to his “bosses,” he would realize that no law actually prevents him or his government from sharing information anyway, and would have, sometime in the past five years, directed his agencies to join the 21st century and consider keeping public websites updated and supplied with material on normal everyday work.
Beware of an FOI Act that is really an OS Act
The FOI – in some form, if not necessarily one of the versions now stuck in legislative limbo – is necessary to restore credibility and accountable performance to the government. We urge that it legitimately be considered urgent by our lawmakers, and passed before the end of the new legislative session. Not that it will restore credibility and accountability to the present government – that is a lost cause – but to set a higher bar for the next one.
But we must repeat here what we have warned about two or three times in this space over the past couple of years. The Palace and its friends seem to have prepared a version of the FOI Act, which, we believe makes journalists’ work harder than now. It contains provisions that give top officials bent on hiding something the power to interdict a document or piece of information that today a cooperative public servant would freely discuss and show to a reporter.
Unless the FOI bill the House passes is basically the same as the one that Congressman Tañada and his committee were presenting to the plenary three years ago, then the FOI Act we would get might make be an Official Secrets Act instead.