On May 10, 2016, presumptive (Philippine) president Duterte said that he will push the Freedom of Information Bill on the first day of his Presidency even if takes an Executive Order.
“Kung ayaw ng Congress I will start progressively. Para walang satsat, walang yakyak, day one, basta pataas na, huwag na pabalik kasi magulo yan (If Congress refuses to pass such a law, I will start on it progressively). Let’s cut to the chase. From day one, although this will not be retroactive since ordering so will create a very chaotic situation. FOI, I will impose it on my department, executive department,” he told reporters.
Executive Order (EO) – the President’s declaration which has the force of law, usually based on existing statutory powers, and requiring no action by the Congress or state legislature.
The Filipino people’s fight for freedom of information has a very long history and it seems that President Duterte will be the one to end it.
Freedom of Information in the Philippines
Since the 1973 Constitution, the people’s right to information was already mandated.
SEC. 6. The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized. Access to official records, and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, shall be afforded the citizen subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.
But why is it difficult to pass such an important law? Well, because it has to be approved by the House of Representatives and some of them does not want it to become a law.
The Benefits of Freedom of Information
Access to information was increasingly recognized as a prerequisite for transparency and accountability of governments, as facilitating consumers’ ability to make informed choices, and as safeguarding citizens against mismanagement and corruption.
- The media is having difficulty in gathering reliable information. In place of Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net worth (SALN), the House of Representatives only releases a summary of the wealth of House members in a matrix that includes the total amount of real properties, personal properties, total assets, liabilities and net worth of each lawmaker.
- Rappler’s request for the full copies of the SALNs of lawmakers, which they file every year, has been repeatedly denied. This is in stark contrast with its co-equal branch, the Senate, which regularly releases the full copies of statements to media.
- Corruption is prevalent in the Philippines because government expenditures are kept secret. On July 12, 2013, as Philippine Daily Inquirer exposed the controversy over the Priority Development Assistance Fund (popularly known as pork barrel scam) and the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), it clearly showed that much about government financial transactions are still hidden from the public eye.
With the help of Freedom of Information:
- The media will be able to gather reliable and updated information for their reports.
- Ordinary citizens will have access to public documents that can make public officials more accountable.
If the Freedom of Information is immediately enacted as a law, the media should watch out (as always) for more ‘pork barrel scam-like’ crimes.
The Panama Papers
On May 9, 2016 (EST), the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) released a searchable database of its Panama Papers. The database contains information on companies, trusts and foundations and users can see networks involving the offshore companies.
The leaked documents illustrate how wealthy individuals, including public officials, are able to keep personal financial information private. While the use of offshore business entities is often not illegal, reporters found that some of the shell corporations were used for illegal purposes, including fraud, kleptocracy, tax evasion, and evading international sanctions.
The Panama Papers is the biggest data leak worked on by a journalist with 11.5 million documents detailing financial and attorney–client information for more than 214,488 offshore entities. The leaked documents were created by Panamanian law firm and corporate service provider Mossack Fonseca; some dated back to the 1970s.
Public officials included in the Panama Papers
“There are legitimate uses for offshore companies and trusts,” reads a statement on the ICIJ website. “We do not intend to suggest or imply that any persons … have broken the law or otherwise acted improperly.”
- Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump
- Argentina President Mauricio Macri
- U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron
- Russian President Vladimir Putin
- Saudi Arabia King Salman bin Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman Al Saud
The Panama Papers and Freedom of Information are just two proofs of the calls for an open-information and a transparent governance.
What does the FOI and Panama Papers have in common?
Both are aiming to promote transparency and informed public decisions. “We think that information about who owns the company should be public and transparent,” says the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
As time passes by and as we aim for a better world, global citizens are demanding for better governments. I truly hope we are on our way to it.