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A big step forward for Freedom of Information

At the start of his administration on June 30, 2016, President Duterte said he would issue an executive order to implement Freedom of Information – at least in the Executive Department. The President made good on his pledge with Executive Order No. 2, Series of 2016, on July 23.

Last Wednesday, Malacanang took one big step forward with the launching of a website — www.foi.gov.ph — where the public may file applications for information from 15 agencies of the government. The usual procedure of personally filing paper-based applications will have to be followed in the other government offices.

Of the 15 offices in the electronic FoI program, six are major cabinet departments – Budget and Management (DBM), Finance (DoF), Justice (DoJ), Transportation (DoTr), Health (DoH), and Information and Communications Technology (DICT). With budget and traffic issues now among those at the center of public discussion, we can expect the DBM and the DoTr to get most of the initial inquiries from interested citizens.

The rest of the 15 executive agencies are the Philippine National Police, the Philippine Statistical Authority, the National Archives, PhilHealth, the Government Corporate Counsel, the offices of the Solicitor General and the Public Attorney, the Philippine Commission on Good Government, and the Presidential Communications Office.

As may be expected, some information cannot be released to the public. These include information covered by executive privilege, national security, protection of public and personal safety, confidential banking and finance records, and matters covered by pertinent laws, jurisprudence, rules and regulations. We expect some discussion over some critical issues – whether they are covered by the nine exemptions – but we must welcome Executive Order No. 2 for launching a program that has been left stranded in Congress all these years.

Freedom of Information is in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution. “Access to official records, and to documents, and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, as well as government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law,” it says in Section 7 of Article III, Bill of Rights.

For years, efforts were made in Congress for the enactment of a Freedom of Information law. The Senate finally approved one in 2014 but the House of Representatives never got around to approving one. This prompted President Duterte to say he would do in his first month in office what Congress had failed to do in years.

But Executive Order No. 2 covers only the Executive Department. A law is still needed to include the Legislative and the Judicial Departments for a government-wide regime of Freedom of Information. We trust that this will be the next step to be taken by the members of the Senate and the House led by President Duterte’s allies in Congress.