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Pork, Freedom of Information and Aquino’s silence

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The pork barrel scandal showed the power of journalism — and its limitations.

It took the reporting by the Philippine Daily Inquirer and other organizations, aided by a whistleblower, to expose the alleged shenanigans of Janet Lim Napoles.

But it took a government audit report to make it stunningly clear that the problem was far bigger than Napoles – that her alleged pork barrel schemes were just a puny island in an archipelago of pig poop.

Reporters could have tried to unearth and expose all that garbage, of course.

But they almost surely would have faced enormous obstacles and may not have succeeded in digging up all the pieces of the story.

In fact, in a country where media corruption is a problem, there are those in media who probably would not  have even tried because it’s not in their interest to do so.

This may sound odd coming from a journalist, but why not have a system in which journalists and media aren’t that important?

Why not a system in which basic information, such as on how tax dollars are spent, are routinely disclosed and made readily available to ordinary citizens — not just the media?

That’s one of the powerful arguments for a Freedom of Information law.  And it’s not surprising that the Napoles scandal has reignited interest in calls for such a law.

“We believe that this landmark legislation, coupled with ongoing efforts at promoting good governance, will be an effective deterrent to abuses perpetrated by the corrupt,” the Makati Business Club said in a statement.

This is the perfect time for President Aquino to jump on this issue, to make the passing of a Freedom of Information law a priority.

In the past, he has appeared reluctant to do this based on a fear that such a law could be abused by media. Aquino told reporters two years ago that he was worried that “some elements who may want to use the information not to inform the public, but to, rather, inflame them” adding that media “shouldn’t allow themselves to be used as attack dogs either.”

That’s a vague and narrow view. And one that, in the wake of public outrage over a culture of corruption that’s even more shameless and brazen than what many Filipinos imagined, doesn’t make sense.

For Freedom of Information, as I’ve argued in the past, is not just about the media. In fact, as former Congressman Erin Tanada, the author of the FOI bill, told me last year, the proposal is “is more of a citizen’s right to freedom of information and not the media.”

“The constitutional provision on the Right to Information did not mention it as a media right but a citizen’s right,” he added.

In fact, if Aquino is really worried about media being used to mislead or distort the truth, a Freedom of Information law can be an important tool in keeping media corruption and even incompetence in check.

Again, imagine a society in which citizens aren’t that dependent on media to be informed. With an FOI law as a foundation for a more transparent government culture, Filipino citizens could do their own digging in order to expose other corruption cases.

Aquino needs to push more aggressively on this issue especially since the pork barrel fiasco could eventually undermine the image he’s been trying so hard to project – that of a president determined to eradicate all forms of government corruption.

What happened to the chief executive who just a few weeks ago gave a fiery speech denouncing corruption at the customs bureau?

This is supposed to be Aquino’s issue. This is supposed to define his presidency.

The silence is deafening.

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Tags: Features , Freedom of Information , Global Nation , pork barrel scam



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