September 15, 2014     Philippines
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February 1, 2013
Groups thumb down exceptions in Freedom of Information bill

“A watered-down FOI bill will just reinforce what is already a pattern of information denial by the government which is fearful of genuinely engaging its citizens on policies it knows are anti-people and anti-developmental.” – Ibon Foundation

By RONALYN V. OLEA
Bulatlat.com

MANILA – Advocates of the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill have called for transparency in governance but what if the version that awaits approval by the Congress would institutionalize secrecy?

The consolidated bill House Bill 6766 or the FOI bill lists ten points of exceptions, all of which are present in Malacañang’s version of the FOI.

These exceptions prompted the Makabayan coalition of progressive partylist groups in Congress to withdraw their sponsorship of the bill.

Groups that frequently ask government agencies to release information on various matters also raised objections to the exceptions.

‘Misnamed’

Independent think-tank Ibon Foundation deemed that the current FOI bill is misnamed “because it institutionalizes government confidentiality and secrecy to the detriment of genuine transparency, accountability and participation by citizens in democratic governance.”

The HB 6766 exempts information pertaining to national security or defense, information that refers to the foreign affairs of the Republic of the Philippines from public access.

Records of minutes during decision-making and policy-formulation, including the opinions and advice given then, are not to be disclosed. Drafts of resolutions, ordera, memoranda or audit reports of any branch of government are also to be exempted from access.

Any information that pertains to internal or external defense, law enforcement and border control is also not to be disclosed. Information obtained by any committee of either House of Congress in executive session is also to be exempted from disclosure.

Other exceptions include trade secrets, personal information of a natural person, classified as privilege communications in legal proceedings by law or by Rules of Court, and if information is already made accessible through other means.

“The Malacañang-driven bill confirms that the government is afraid of genuinely empowered citizens who will take them to task for their pro-foreign and pro-elite governance,” Jose Enrique Africa, executive director of Ibon Foundation, told Bulatlat.com in an email interview.

Africa lamented that “policy-making is already very secretive and opaque” and the restrictions in the FOI bill “would just formalize and institutionalize what is already being done under an Orwellian-speak Freedom of Information law.”

Orwellian describes the situation, idea, or societal condition that George Orwell identified as being destructive to the welfare of a free and open society.

Already secretive

In a recent report, Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda claimed that FOI proponents “had no qualms” about the Aquino administration’s transparency.

“In fact we have been very transparent and, in fact, we intend to show you the list of measures that we have done to show that we have been transparent in our transactions,” Lacierda said.

Lacierda’s statement is contrary to what Ibon Foundation has experienced as well as the results of independent studies.

Africa revealed that several times government agencies denied them vital information. Among the official requests the research institute made include information on far-reaching international agreements such as the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA), the proposed European Union-RP Free Trade Agreement (EU-RP FTA).

The group also asked for data on the oil monopolies in the country, particularly oil pricing, trade, stocks and inventory data; on mining firms’ operations, particularly environmental impact assessments; on so-called anti poverty programs, the operational data and impact assessments of the conditional cash transfers, on the US military presence in the country particularly data on visits by US land, sea and air forces, and many others.

A recent report by US-based International Budget Partnership listed the Philippines as one of the 77 countries that failed to meet basic standards of budget transparency.

A 2011 study by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) revealed that access to information is “more difficult” under Aquino compared to the previous administration.

“The Office of the President is among the topnotchers in denying transparency,” Malou Mangahas, PCIJ executive director, revealed during a forum in 2011.

Dangerous provisions

Africa said the exemptions for records of minutes and drafts pre-empts real participation at the crucial early stages of policy-making.

While there is already jurisprudence that expressly limits executive privilege, Africa noted, it is not a standing absolute blanket right rather, as the name implies, “a privilege that moreover needs to be justified on a case-to-case basis.” “Expressly exempting records and drafts institutionalizes undemocratic executive secrecy. All these exemptions abridge the people’s right to participate in the most important social, economic and political decisions of government,” Africa pointed out.

The group also said that “the very broad and very general definition of national security unfortunately means that information on foreign affairs can also be included among the exceptions from disclosure.”

Ibon Foundation has been consistent in its research work on international agreements that affect Filipino people’s lives.

“The government is already abusing its authority and control over information as it is – the anti-FOI law just gives them further legal basis for doing so,” Africa said.

Meanwhile, human rights group Karapatan also raised alarm on the inclusion of “national security” in the list of exceptions.

In an interview, Cristina Palabay, secretary general of Karapatan, said the Malacanang-imposed FOI would provide “legitimate mechanism to absolve state actors in cases of human rights violations.”

“Every violation cannot be investigated thoroughly as state forces or the President can easily invoke national security in non-disclosure of information,” Palabay said, “This also blurs the question on
command responsibility.”

Palabay said invoking national security is “very dangerous” as this “would abridge almost all civil and political rights of the people.”

“With the realities today – many are being killed, disappeared and tortured by state security forces – a Malacanang-sponsored FOI bill would worsen the violations,” Palabay said.

“There is so much information that, were it available to the public, could be used to feed a more genuinely democratic and consultative process of decision-making,” Africa said. “A watered-down FOI bill will just reinforce what is already a pattern of information denial by the government which is fearful of genuinely engaging its citizens on policies it knows are anti-people and anti-developmental.” (http://bulatlat.com)

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