In his final message on the National Budget for 2016, former President Aquino called on Congress to approve the Freedom of Information bill which was deemed an integral part of the Aquino Good Governance and Anti-Corruption Plan of 2012-2016. The administration bill, it was said, would promote greater transparency, accountability, and citizen participation in governance.
The administration bill basically provided that information on official acts, transactions, and decisions be made available to the public. But not information specifically authorized to be kept secret by an executive order, records of discussions during decision-making led by the President in matters of a sensitive nature, defense information, trade secrets that would prejudice commercial competition, privileged communication as prescribed by the Rules of Court, and information exempted by law or the Constitution.
The Senate approved the bill as early as March, 2014. The House of Representatives Committee on Public Information formed a Technical Working Group that met from February to June, 2015. But the House never got around to approving the FOI bill until it finally adjourned last June.
Last Sunday, new Communications Secretary Martin Andanar announced over state-run radio that President Duterte will issue an executive order to implement freedom of information in a week or two, covering government offices in the executive branch of the government. A law will have to be passed by Congress to cover all government offices, including the legislative and the judicial branches.
The FOI bill has long been pushed by most media for it will help in getting information that is often with held despite its relevance to the discussion of important national issues. In 2014, the Supreme Court itself got involved in a public debate on whether it should release its members’ Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Networth (SALN) as requested by the Bureau of Internal Revenue. The court invoked privacy, safety, and maintenance of the independence of the judiciary by protecting them against intimidation, as reasons for its numerous requirements for SALN requests.
In recent years, there have been many controversies in government that might have been more speedily resolved if there had been a Freedom of Information Law – among them the frequent breakdown in the operations of the Metro Rail Transit, the Mamasapano incident, and the pork barrel exposes. But even without it, the press has been able to report extensively on the issues.
With an FOI executive order from President Duterte, the Philippine media will be able to play an even bigger role in informing the public, while officials will have an additional reason to be more zealous and true in following the rules and requirements of law. But the efforts to enact a law must continue for a wider coverage of the Freedom of Information Law to cover the entire Philippine government – the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary.