While the media has issues with the rhetorical style of President Rodrigo Duterte – particularly the foreign press corps which, along with international freedom watchdogs, continues to vent its anger at the president’s law-and-order policies – one area in which they will undoubtedly support him in is the need for the Philippines to enact and implement its own Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.
This legislation has been 27 years in the making; that’s how long it’s been since the first FOI Bill was tabled before the Philippine Congress – media and civic groups I the Philippines have been campaigning for it for years. And while the people’s right to information is enshrined in the 1987 Constitution, as elsewhere in the world, support legislation – what the US refers to as ‘sunshine laws’ – is deemed necessary if such rights are to be fully guaranteed.
Article III, The Bill of Rights, Section 7 states: “The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized. Access to official records, and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law”.
While the latest FOI Bill found support in the Senate, leadership in the House along with former president, Benigno Aquino, did little to further its progress, despite Aquino’s repeated references to it as priority legislation early in his term. And by the time it did finally make it through the protracted debate stages, Aquino’s term in office had come to an end.
Earlier this month, House member, Raul V. Del Mar (Cebu City, First District) re-filed the proposed FOI legislation. “This same measure was already approved on third and final reading during the 16th Congress. However, due to lack of quorum of the last session day, the subject Conference Committee report was not ratified,” Del Mar said.
Now it seems there can be no excuse for any further delay, and Duterte has said as much. In fact, sensing lingering resistance within Congress, he has promised that passage of the legislation will go ahead promptly, even if he has to side-step lawmakers and use executive-branch powers to make that happen.
“If Congress does not want to pass it, I will start progressively so that we don’t talk too much,” he said. “I will go ahead of them … I will issue an executive order”. He added that there would be no need for Congress to pass an FOI law before the essence of one is carried out in Malacañang, the presidential palace, and all the government’s departments and agencies.
Difficult though it might be for many of the president’s foreign critics to understand, much less appreciate, Duterte is committed to having a fully transparent administration. Indeed, the openness of his policies and his statements concerning the penalties that criminal’s can expect under his government, is testament to that. He has made no attempt to conceal or deceive over the direction of his anti-drug drive, for example, nor of the strategies his law enforcement will adopt to deal with the issue.
“[Freedom of information] will be expanded … Media and everybody is open to dig into paper,” he said, explaining that freedom of information is a top priority for his administration.