It seems we are cautious about celebrating the passage of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill in the Senate. After all, we’ve seen how pretty much nothing can happen in a House of Representatives that the President holds by the neck. And before they deny that—because, look, no more PDAF to bait Congressmen with!—may Malacañang realize that no one believes the propaganda that there is no more pork barrel.
Discretionary funds by any other name? Still the President’s powerful hand is in what happens, what laws are passed (or not), in the Lower House.
And we all know the President hasn’t been too keen about FOI.
A reminder: Presidential disregard
FOI was one of this president’s many promises. In a fantastic interactive timeline by Interaksyon.com, (http://www.interaksyon.com/article/47935/interactive-timeline–a-history-of-fois-promise-and-death-in-the-15th-congress), they track down this promise to February 9, 2010, in a blog entry on his campaign website. Then Presidential candidate Noynoy promised that his government would support “the enactment of the Freedom of Information Bill in Congress.”
In February 2011, this quote from the President: “In the interim, I don’t think we have been hiding anything. We have not avoided any question that has been thrown our way. So even in the absence of any Freedom of Information Law, we have been trying to be transparent to the utmost level possible.”
In September 2011, the President said of FOI: “You know, having a freedom of information act sounds so good and noble but at the same time—I think you’ll notice that here in this country—there’s a tendency of getting information and not really utilizing it for the proper purposes.”
In January 2012, the President told the working group of then USec Manolo Quezon to move faster on the FOI Bill; and a mere three days after, on January 4, the President approved the Malacañang version of the Bill. Congress was then tasked to incorporate Malacañang’s revisions into the bill, and the next thing we knew FOI was dead – slaughtered, witnesses say – in the 15th Congress.
No thanks to the President’s lack of support. In 2014 this is still where we stand.
An elephant, a pig
The big white elephant in the President’s FOI room is actually a pig.
That is, that big fat pork barrel. That one that patronage politics lives off, that one that has been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and against which the Million People March happened last year. It’s also because of this government’s lack of transparency that the pork barrel scam exploded in its face. It’s because of the pork barrel scam that we now know of this government’s lack of transparency.
It’s almost a chicken and egg question except that it’s pretty clear here which came first: the lack of FOI, which should be at the heart of any government that promises transparency. And in case it isn’t obvious: the lack of FOI is proof of the limits to this government’s promise of transparency.
This is what keeps me from celebrating the FOI’s passage in the Senate. For the 16th Congress, plenary discussions and debates on FOI will be layered with what we now know about the pork barrel system, and how it has allowed for this power play between the Executive and the Legislative. This time around our Representatives will be on their toes, on the defensive for sure, about what FOI might reveal about where public money goes.
The idea of the public using information irresponsibly is often mentioned as reason to be iffy about FOI. Yet it is actually government officials’ irresponsible use of public funds that keeps from getting this law passed.
When PNoy said in 2010 that despite the lack of FOI his government was “trying to be as transparent to the utmost level possible,” it was a portent of things to come. Since then, we have seen how FOI is like the twin of transparency who’s locked up in the attic because the latter would pale in comparison.
When we were dealt the blow of the pork barrel scam, I heard it often from government trolls: government is on our side because it facilitated this revelation about pork. The Department of Budget and Management website after all had put online all budget allocations.
At the launch of the FAITH website, that hub for tracking foreign aid for Haiyan victims, the President had said “… We have always made it a point to abide by the pillars of good governance: transparency, accountability, and integrity. It is in light of this that we are launching FAITH.”
Early in the year, government wasted no time celebrating its Open Data Website, as the Executive’s way of “complying with the constitutional provision on access to information,” as Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda had said. “Open Data is there to show that we are going to upload data, so there is no issue on being open, being transparent. We are going to put it out.”
But even Lacierda had to admit that Open Data – and all these other websites and the government’s notion of transparency through these, in fact – is different from FOI based on one critical aspect. BOLD REX FOI is about the right of the public to demand information from government and its officials;END BOLD Open Data is about government supplying the public with information.
And given this government, in fact, all these websites is really only about building on the propaganda of how it is transparent and credible. A look at this information of course reveals that none of it is actually what we need to assess government, none of these sites give us anything more than lump sums. It is of course the break down of these lump sums that we want, it is the process these funds go through. It is the devil in the details that we demand.
Freedom of Information will give us the right to make this demand. Now who’s scared of that.