MANILA, Philippines—Filipinos who want to understand how a freedom of information law can foster transparency in the government can take a look at one Asian country that went through a rough path before achieving democracy and economic might—and whose top exports now include the “Gangnam Style.”
They can take notes particularly from a city mayor who, before gaining political power, played cat and mouse with the authorities as an activist, staging “one-man rallies” to skirt the ban on public assembly.
Mayor Park Won Soon of Seoul, South Korea, introduced last December what may be considered a freedom of information advocate’s dream: full disclosure of documents relating to megabuck projects. And not just contracts and budget reports, but even “MOMs” or minutes of the meetings.
“Mildew grows in damp places. Corruption prospers under the umbrella of secrecy. Disclose everything and all will be clean,” said Park, who returned to Manila recently for the 55th anniversary of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (RMAF).
Seven years earlier, the RMAF had the foresight to recognize the man way before the people of Seoul decided to put him in City Hall. The foundation handed to Park, then a civic leader, human rights lawyer and antigraft watchdog, the Ramon Magsaysay Award for public service in 2006.
The RM Award is considered the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Park won the award mainly for his work in the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD), which he helped form in the 1990s.
The citation retraced how Park grew up under a military dictatorship, was jailed as a student activist, and continued the fight against the “lingering authoritarian styles of leadership” even in a developed South Korea.
“Korea experienced so much corruption as it experienced rapid economic growth that it was called ROTC—for Republic of Total Corruption. There was a strong demand for transparency from the public, the media and civil society,” Park, 57, said in an interview with the Inquirer.
Elected mayor in October 2011, Park invoked existing laws and regulations on transparency—the very laws the PSPD successfully campaigned for years earlier—to disclose all the information and data for seven controversial projects initiated by his predecessor.
“You can say Korea already had the environment of laws set in place,” he said. “There was already that sense of transparency and responsibility within the system, so my job (as mayor) was to make it a reality.”
Park nicknamed his effort “The Naked Project.” And finally 1,090 previously sealed documents, with about 12,000 pages, became accessible to the public through a website.
The documents included urban development plans for a shopping complex and amusement park; records of public hearings and environment-impact assessments for a waterway project; board recommendations, contracts and modifications relating to a “floating island” project; fund allocations for the repair of a bridge; postdisaster recovery and financing plans; and construction plans and negotiation MOMs in connection with a subway line.
Documents from as far back as 1999 and as recent as 2012—“facts pertaining to the projects from start to finish”—were retrieved and posted on the website for public scrutiny.
“Before, citizens had to ask for information,” Park said. “Now we have made it a principle to disclose everything. We created an online platform for the documents of the city, even on the budget, so the citizens can look at them and see if there had been a waste.”
State’s hard hand
At the core of Park’s convictions is his passion for freedom and good government that landed him in Yeongdeungpo prison in 1975. The military held him and about a hundred fellow students there for about four months, interrupting his law studies at Seoul National University. “At the age of 19, he tasted the hard hand of the state,” his RMAF citation read.
Park emerged from incarceration undeterred. Passing the bar in 1980, he threw himself headlong into South Korea’s emerging prodemocracy movement, and found himself veering from a conventional legal career to taking up cases of political prisoners, torture victims and journalists suppressed by the regime. One case he took to court led to the conviction of a police officer who sexually abused a female labor leader.
At a time when it was illegal to assemble to protest against the government, Park and his peers in the PSPD found a way to go around, if not flout, the ban: They took turns marching in the streets one protester at a time holding up a placard.
Under his leadership, the PSPD monitored and exposed the track record of court judges handling human rights cases, regulatory officials, and even business executives linked to illicit transactions, while lobbying for laws against corruption and for the protection of whistle-blowers.
“We had a strong sense of patriotism and a sense of responsibility (that) I think helped me overcome personal losses—imprisonment and being expelled from the university. The problem is this sense of commitment and dedication tend to diminish as we age. However, it was not the case for me. I kept that commitment and dedication throughout my life,” Park said.
Park remains open, keeping a conversation with some 737,500 Twitter followers about their ideas, concerns and suggestions.
Yet a campaign for transparency need not necessarily land people in jail to be considered a success. Park said openness, coupled with incentives, made his city and South Korea attractive to foreign investment, which has been pouring in record volumes for the past two years.
“It can be attributed to the measures we have taken,” he said. “Perhaps investors may think Korea is not yet as transparent as European nations, but there has been no case of corruption so serious as to stop them from coming to Korea.”
In a 2012 message to his city explaining his “Naked Project,” Park summed up his philosophy: “I have always believed that transparency is at the core of anticorruption (initiatives), serving as a barometer of the level of civilization in a country. The more transparent a society is, the more advanced it is. Transparency and accountability are important as we make an effort to join the ranks of the world’s most advanced societies.”