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Aquino on Freedom of Information: Yes – but only if it’s painless?

02:34 PM July 30, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO—P-Noy did not mention the push for a Freedom of Information law in his State of the Nation Address. But he elaborated on his thinking on the issue in a speech before the Philippine Star.

And what he said would make one think that Noynoy is certainly for a freedom of information law – but only if it’s painless.

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“This right to know carries with it responsibilities – to use the information available in context; to present facts fairly; and to be conscious of some elements who may want to use the information not to inform the public, but to, rather, inflame them,” he said.

As a journalist, that immediately raised a red flag for me: Who is to say when information is inflammatory or not?

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So is he okay with what many of us see as a critical big step forward for Philippine democracy – but only if, in his view, it doesn’t mean having a harsh spotlight on his own administration?

Take P-Noy’s own stunning exposé which he no doubt managed to accomplish with his own special access to official information.

A highlight of his last SONA was the revelation that those who once led PAGCOR spent a billion pesos for coffee.

It’s scandalous, of course. And kudos to Noynoy and his team for exposing it.

But then again, it involved the previous administration which certainly might have viewed the use of those data points as irresponsible and even inflammatory.

Would P-Noy have been open to taking the brunt of that exposé if it were his appointees who had spent that obscene amount on caffeine?

P-Noy also noted that a partnership between media and government “does not mean that we want media to be lapdogs of government; at the same time, media shouldn’t allow themselves to be used as attack dogs either.”

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Again, the question is this: Who is to decide if media is being “used as attack dogs?”

Certainly, in the view of the administration and its allies, the media attention on the alleged cheating in the 2004 presidential elections is a form of responsible and even hard-hitting journalism.

But what about the efforts of responsible reporters seeking to uncover the extent of the influence of Noynoy’s so-called KKK circle? Would that be, in their eyes, a form of “attack dog” journalism?

These points highlight what should be a key feature of any law that purportedly guarantees ordinary citizens’ relevant access to official information.

Let me stress that last part: This is about giving Filipinos the ability to access information.

Yes, it is even about giving partisan entities, including those who might be aligned with opposition political parties, the right to access official documents.

More significantly, it’s about giving community advocacy groups or even private citizens access to government information.

In my view, and I suspect many other would agree, FOI shouldn’t just be about the media.

It should be about all Filipinos and about giving them the ability to ask, probe, and even challenge government information and policy.

To be sure, Freedom of Information in most countries involves restrictions related to say, tactical military information and even certain personnel records.

But the premise is this: an informed public means a stronger democracy. And in P-Noy’s stated goal of fighting corruption, an informed citizenry can certainly be an important ally.

Unless, of course, P-Noy’s idea of battling corruption is to be like Captain Philippines or Captain Barbell singlehandedly taking on the bad guys, instead of laying the foundation for a new order in which corruption will find it harder to survive.

There are signs, however, that even some members of Team Noynoy don’t really get it.

In an interview with the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism Communications Undersecretary Manuel Quezon III argued that “transparency doesn’t even require an FOI bill.”

He continued: “Generally, (transparency means) are you willing to accommodate the questions that are brought by reporters or researchers, are you more forthcoming with your budget data, are you more liberal in terms of what sort are non-controversial items that can be immediately put online.”

The suggestion here is that the country doesn’t really need an FOI right now, because the country is being run by a president who believes in transparent government.

It certainly is good to know that, despite mounting criticisms of P-Noy’s apparent reluctance to act against his known friends and allies who have been accused of abusing their positions, members of Team Noynoy think of themselves as paragons of transparent and responsive government.

But that’s not really the point.

The point is to make sure that, even if a presidential wannabe who happens to not believe in transparent and responsive government gets elected – and we surely know that can happen — there are laws, that there’s a system and a political culture in place to make it extremely difficult for an abusive leader to easily shut down meaningful access to information.

Yes, I know, that sounds like a pipe dream in a country where the rich and the powerful are so accustomed to controlling information based on their interests.

Which is why, as I see it, FOI is just one step in the effort to build a stronger democracy.

In the United States, a similar law is referred to simply as “foya,” short for Freedom of Information Act.

It’s striking that the US law is marking its 45th anniversary just as the push to pass a similar law is picking up steam in the Philippines.

Now, having worked as a reporter in the United States for the past two decades, I must say this: Laws meant to guarantee public access to government information don’t automatically lead to meaningful government transparency.

We’re not talking about magic here.

In many ways, this issue is more than just about new laws.

It’s about creating a culture in which politicians and government bureaucrats — from high-level cabinet officials to office clerks — fully accept that ordinary citizens generally have the right to information.

And that takes time.

That’s true even here in the United States.

I realized this in the late 90s as a reporter covering a county outside of San Francisco. When I asked to see a copy of a government report, an apparently misinformed clerk said, ‘No.’

So I called a county official who immediately said something like, “Oh, man. Sorry about that, Ben. I’ll take care of it.”

And within an hour, I had the document I needed.

Former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark put it best in the memo he issued as the United States was about to implement the new Freedom of Information law in the late 1960s: “Nothing so diminishes democracy as secrecy.”

“Self-government, the maximum participation of the citizenry in affairs of state,” he added, “is meaningful only with an informed public.”

On Twitter @KuwentoPimentel

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TAGS: FOI, Freedom of Information Law, Government, Information, Media, public, transparency
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