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WHEN President Duterte issued his executive order (EO) on Freedom of Information (FOI) covering all offices of the Executive department last July 23, just three weeks after he assumed office, it was hailed as a sign of the great change in the workings of government that he had promised – and for which he won – in the election.
The speed with which the EO was issued was “record breaking,” Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said. There had been moves in the last 29 years for Congress to enact a Freedom of Information law, but they had all failed, as lawmakers appeared reluctant to approve such a law, fearing, they said, the use of such information for black propaganda.
The EO covered only executive offices because of the doctrine of separation of powers, the secretary said. It will be up to Congress to enact an FOI law that would cover all government branches, including the Legislature and the Judiciary. There would be some exceptions covering information involving national security and personal information to protect personal privacy. These would be clearly specified in a list to be drawn up by the Department of Justice and the Solicitor General.
Last week, Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez announced that the House of Representatives will not be able to enact a Freedom of Information Law this year. The congressmen will be busy deliberating on the national budget and the hearings are expected to last until November. He evidently does not share Malacañang’s sense of pride and accomplishment that President Duterte was able to issue an executive order in only three weeks.
Then last weekend, Malacañang announced that the DoJ and the Solicitor General had submitted their list of exceptions to the President’s executive order – 166 in all. One item exempted the Commission on Elections from revealing details of its procurement process, such as its acquiring of the services of foreign service provider Smartmatic. Another item would exempt the Department of Labor from disclosing information and records it has obtained, raising immediate objections from the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines.
The list of exemptions is not final and will be reviewed by the Office of the Deputy Executive Secretary for Legislative Affairs. We must say that a Freedom of Information EO with 166 exemptions is not much of an executive order. We hope that the high expectations that met President Duterte’s EO, the second of his administration, will not turn to great disappointment.
We also hope that Congress will not take too much time before it enacts a Freedom of Information Law. Even while it deliberates on the national budget, surely preliminary hearings can be conducted by the proper House committee, so that as soon as the House schedule allows it, it will be swiftly approved ending 26 years of inaction on this very basic right that is enshrined in our Constitution.