Senate remarks: Time for gov’t to ‘like’ FOI, ‘share’ information

FREEDOM OF INFORMATION: Sen. Grace Poe, chairperson of the Committee on Public Information and Mass Media, and Senator JV Ejercito lead the second hearing on the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill Wednesday, Sept. 18. The committee hopes to reconcile at least 10 different versions of the FOI bill that remains pending at the Senate. (PRIB Photo by Joseph Vidal)
FREEDOM OF INFORMATION: Sen. Grace Poe, chairperson of the Committee on Public Information and Mass Media, and Senator JV Ejercito lead the second hearing on the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill Wednesday, Sept. 18. The committee hopes to reconcile at least 10 different versions of the FOI bill that remains pending at the Senate. (PRIB Photo by Joseph Vidal)

The Senate public information and mass media committee, chaired by Senator Grace Poe, today held a public hearing on the Freedom of Information bills.

The Senate FOI bills are authored by: Senators Angara, A. CayetanoEjercito, EscuderoGuingona, HonasanLegarda, Osmena, and Trillanes.

I made and delivered the following remarks:

Honorable Senator Grace Poe, other honorable Members of the Senate, and fellow citizens, good morning.

Thank you very much, Madame Senator Poe, for the invitation and for the opportunity to share views on the Freedom of Information bills now pending before the Senate.

Long overdue, but now’s the next perfect time

If we could only put CCTVs in every nook and cranny of each government office and assign a Reality TV camera on each public official, maybe we could lessen corruption and make government literally transparent. But that is not possible, impractical and may be legally questionable. The FOI is the next best thing. It gives citizens the flashlight to focus light and the camera to take snapshots on how government operates, spends public funds, and makes transactions, among others.

Day to day though, we Filipinos just want to make government work for us. We want quick delivery of services. We want access to information that we need to do our business. Government has long been compiling information from us – income, census, car ownership, home ownership, and taxes. It about time government shares information in a systematic way.

The passage of FOI is long overdue. Rep. Oscar Orbos filed House Bill 1805 on Aug. 31, 1992. To illustrate the long wait. Ms. Poe was nursing her four month old firstborn son at the time, Mr. Ejercito was a new college graduate, Mr. Angara was a business reporter, Mr. Trillanes was a PMA cadet, Mr. Aquino was 15, and Mr. Enrile already finished his second term as senator. Also in 1992, we almost had a president by the name of Miriam Defensor Santiago. Ganon na po katagal.

But now is the next perfect time for Congress to do it, when citizens themselves are taking action over the PDAF scandal and demanding that steps be taken to prevent the scam from happening again, from the prosecution of those involved in the abusive use of public funds to the abolition of the pork barrel system.

Even President BS Aquino has finally agreed, at least on paper, that Congress should make FOI a priority bill. It would be better though if the President comes out himself to publicly endorse the passage of the FOI and to give up his own discretionary funds, matching the groundswell of public indignation over presidential and congressional pork barrel misuse.

An FOI Law would empower citizens with the broadest-possible and enforceable Right To Know provisions that will require government officials to perform Duties To Reply and To Publish with a very specific and very limited list of exceptions.

The Internet and social media

It is important to note that the first FOI bill filed in 1992 by Congressman Orbos antedates the Internet connection of the Philippines. Our country had our first Internet connection only in March 1994.

We are now a nation with over 35 million Internet-connected citizens, with more than 30-million actively using social media channels to network among themselves, linking the Philippines and the world, providing new channels for media and business, and potentially making government more accessible.

Our level of Internet connectivity and social media access is among the highest in the globe. As early as 2010, the Philippines has been proclaimed as the world’s social media capital. Of course, it would be much better if government, with the help of Congress, would come out with a workable plan to connect 100 percent of the Philippines through a corruption-free national broadband network, take steps to improve quality of service for current Internet users, repeal the Cybercrime Law and pass the Magna Carta of Internet Users.

Bloggers and netizens are very much interested in greater transparency and accountability because we are citizens too who stand to benefit and because the Age of the Internet encourages and pushes us to work for more freedom, more openness and more transparency. If government wants citizens to like it and what it does, government must learn to share.

The Million People March of Aug. 26, EDSA Tayo of Sept. 11 and #ForwardMarch of Sept. 13 are symbolic of the rise and growing influence of the Internet and social media. It is not a secret that bloggers and netizens figure prominently in the #AbolishPork movement and campaigns.

Bloggers and netizens are ready to help implement the FOI and to help raise awareness about the Right to Know. Not only would we ask questions and demand answers, but there is a growing number of professionals who are ready to serve the country in the tasks of systematically digitizing government and public records, set up good and secure websites, make apps, and to make the Internet and social media do the hard work for transparent and accountable governance. We have seen so much innovation for business and media – with the FOI, expect to see innovative ideas and executions in the public sector with the help of Filipino developers and other experts in technology and social media.

Many citizens, especially netizens, developers and technology experts, would be interested in helping government set standards so that information to be disclosed would not just be accessible but usable. Usable by all government agencies, media, watchdogs and citizens. There are already globally-recognized standards for documents, spreadsheets, videos and photos.

Suggestions and recommendations

I do not wish to take up more time, but allow me to share several points that might help you, our lawmakers, make improvements in the final consolidated bill and make a final decision.

Please consider adopting an easier-to-understand secondary name like “People’s Right to Know Act”, and to do everything to make it more concise and clearer by dividing the law into distinguishable sections: Right to Know (for Citizens); Duties to Reply, Disclose and Publish (for Agencies and Officials); Exceptions (for All); and Penalties (for all, especially the Courts).

The bills we have now are not first ever FOI in the whole world. There are many countries which already have FOI Laws for many years now. No country has been put in danger directly caused by FOI. We also have localized FOI initiatives involving Citizen Charters. In short, we have a wealth of global and local experience about FOI – to uphold FOI in the widest and broadest possible sense, while safeguarding important state and commercial secrets, privacy and other reasonable limitations.

Finally, it is expected that the President BS Aquino would push for his own version of the FOI, with a list of exceptions longer than the US FOIA. Exceptions to the Right to Know should be very limited, short and not be subject to the changing moods or whims of any public official, most especially the President.

Discretion and whim – hallmarks of hated PDAF and the pork barrel system – should not characterize the disclosure and publication of government and public records. Please put iron-clad, clear-cut provisions in the FOI to make disclosing and publishing a matter of course and procedure.

Thank you very much.