By Mong Palatino
Beware of politicians who like to insert the keywords ‘transparency’ and ‘good governance’ in their speeches. They are the same people who also use deceptive slogans such as ‘sustainable economy’ and ‘inclusive growth’ to justify the imposition of anti-poor economic policies. These are agreeable political concepts – who would openly oppose them? – but politicians have already distorted their substantial meanings.
It’s obscene how politicians who are neither transparent nor good shamelessly invoke the idea of transparency to preach about good governance.
Transparency is supposed to be the powerful weapon of the weak against the scourge of bad governance. However, its radical potential has been undermined by narrow interpretations. For example, the creation of government websites is quickly cited as proof of transparency. Then, the posting or uploading of government records is hailed as a key reform in the campaign for good governance. But the most applauded gesture is the alleged transformation of the traditional politician into a tech-savvy politician who has learned to maximize various social media tools in interacting with his constituents.
These are misleading definitions of transparency. A government website does not necessarily empower or enlighten the citizens. In fact, it could be easily used to confuse the public by stuffing it with redundant information. The new tactic in the propaganda rule book involves the releasing of voluminous but contradictory data to hide the truth. Bombard the Internet users with meaningless numbers, manipulated records, archaic laws, and other superfluous materials from the library archives. Digitize the reports of all bureaucratic agencies and upload them online.
The Wikileaks expose reminded us not to be satisfied with information that the government is willing to publish for public scrutiny. Instead, we should also aggressively search for information that the government is withholding from us. Despite their low reputations, politicians and their subordinates are not dumb enough who would willingly incriminate themselves with documentary evidence of their misdeeds. They can easily destroy records or declare the minutes of a meeting to be covered by executive privilege. Worse, they can always manufacture ‘clean’ documents and insert them into the records. We are free to access the online files of the government only after the censors and legal advisers have given their approval. The search for truth should not begin in government webpages but in the paper baskets of shredded documents.
The other popular version of transparency is facilitated by social media. Politicians are described to be transparent if they are open, interactive, and kind to Internet trolls. They participate in online discussions to prove their readiness to listen to diverse views. Meanwhile, government campaigns are deemed successful if they are crowdsourced. Nothing wrong so far. The problem begins when this political interaction is elevated as the essential component to achieve good governance. Citizenship is reduced into an infinite conversation between leaders and the people. Good governance is equated with the free exchange of bits and bytes of online information.
But this kind of politics ultimately benefits the politician in power. If everybody is talking (or tweeting), who is doing the fighting in the real world? The conversations (and the chatting) must end at one point so that people can resume their political organizing.
But politicians, being politicians, have already understood and realized the benefits of redirecting politics from the streets into the so-called virtual communities. Their political loss is minimal if what people do is rant online, even incessantly. Thus, they seduce and distract netizens with PR memes and state-sponsored hashtags.
This is transparency that briefly blinds the people about their political duties. The healthy exchange of views between leaders and citizens is necessary; but the non-stop micro debates on national and parochial issues are already unnecessary and politically disempowering. The latter is a form of transparency that is being pursued to prevent the people from properly engaging in politics.
The solution offered by Philippine President Noynoy Aquino to eliminate corruption in the pork barrel system is to institute more transparency measures. But he neglected to mention that the Congress and budget websites are already replete with information about pork barrel fund distribution. His budget chief has repeatedly claimed since 2010 that all disbursements are immediately posted online for public review. He has not stopped reminding us that the government has established numerous mechanisms to democratize the budget process. Yet, corruption persists. And it seems to be worse than ever. The problem is not the absence of information but too much wrong information. The bigger problem is the apparent insincerity of Aquino and his ilk in promoting genuine transparency and good governance.
*Mong Palatino is an activist, blogger, and representative of Kabataan (Youth) Partylist in the 14th and 15th Congress of the Philippines. He is the Philippines’ first blogger turned legislator and the first elected youth representative in the legislative body. As a student leader, he chaired the UP Diliman University Student Council in 2000 and was national president of the National Union of Students of the Philippines in 2001. He was former news editor of Yehey.com, a leading local web portal and columnist for UPIAsia.com from 2007-2009. He is currently the regional editor for Southeast Asia of Global Voices Online, a pioneering social media platform. He also writes a political column for the ASEAN Beat of The Diplomat web magazine. His column “Question Everything” will appear weekly at Bulatlat.com