Open sesame

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Over 90 countries have one. Albania has one, and so has Zimbabwe — a freedom of information act, although known by different names. Albania has a Law no. 8503, which has recognized the right to information on official documents since 1999. Zimbabwe has the Access to Information and Privacy Act (AIPPA) of 2002.

Sweden has the oldest version on the planet of a freedom of information act — its Freedom of the Press Act of 1766. The United States has had its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) since 1966. The world recently saw that law being applied in the case of Noam Chomsky, political activist, critic of US foreign policy, and professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) when, under pressure from a suit brought against it under the provisions of the FOIA, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) admitted that it had been spying on Chomsky.

The list of countries with freedom of information acts in some form or the other includes those one would not normally associate with free expression and citizen access to State-held information. Pakistan has a Freedom of Information Ordinance promulgated by then President Pervez Musharraf in 2002. China’s Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on Open Government Information came into effect in 2008.

Although Senator Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara mentioned Singapore as among the rich countries with a freedom of information act during his sponsorship speech at the September 4 Senate hearings of the FOI bill filed by a coalition of media and free expression groups, that city-state does not have one.

Neither is there a necessary correlation between affluence and the recognition in law of the right to access government-held and even private sector information (also known as the right to know) as the senator declared. Some of the poorest countries have that right enshrined in their laws, among them Bangladesh, and some Latin American (Paraguay, for example) and African countries such as Nigeria and Zimbabwe. A freedom of information act will not open a floodgate of complaints and demands for information. But it won’t be the door to riches either.

In Asia, India’s Right to Information Act has been in force since 2005. In addition to China’s 2008 law, Hong Kong has had a Code on Access to Information since 1995.

Two Malaysian states, Selangor and Penang, have a Freedom of Information Enactment and a Freedom of Information Act, respectively. South Korea has its 1996 Act on Disclosure of Information by Public Agencies. Thailand has had its Official Information Act since 1997. Indonesia passed its Public Information Openness Law in 2008.

The usual developed countries of the West — e.g., the US, Japan, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway, the Netherlands, etc. — have their respective versions of an access to information law.

The Philippines, the Constitution of which guarantees free expression and recognizes the citizenry’s right to information, is not among the countries with a freedom of information act, despite a decades-long campaign for it — and a declared anti-corruption policy by the current administration.

At odds with that policy is President Benigno Aquino III’s resistance to the passage of an authentic — meaning a law that will indeed enhance public access to information rather than restrict it — Freedom of Information act. That resistance is based on the fear that public access to government-held information would compromise “national security,” and hamper government agencies’ capacity to make and implement policy by opening those agencies and their officials to excessive public scrutiny.

These are fears based on the same secrecy mindset dominant during the Marcos dictatorship and still resident in the military establishment. It denies the fundamental right of the citizenry to knowledge of government transactions, decision-making, and policy. It also ignores the role an informed citizenry can play and has played in exposing corruption and bringing its sovereign power to bear on minimizing it.

Aware of the crucial role of the public in exposing and curbing corruption, Mr. Aquino’s predecessor made concealment of government acts and transactions a policy through, among other tactics, the use of executive privilege to prevent the release of information damaging to it, and its Ombudsman’s restricting access to the Statements of Assets and Liabilities and Net worth of government officials. Through a twin policy of default in prosecuting the killers while attacking journalists through libel suits and outright threats, it also tried to stifle journalistic enterprise, and in the process so encouraged the killing of journalists it made the Ampatuan Massacre of November 23, 2009 virtually inevitable.

Mostly unremarked is the connection between human rights violations, the killing of journalists, and corruption. Like the murder of journalists, the killing of community activists is in the majority of cases driven by the conspirators’ need to conceal corruption and criminality. In 90% of the cases of journalists killed, the slain were exposing corruption and the collusion among local officials, the police, the military and criminal syndicates.

There is a necessary connection between eradicating or minimizing corruption and citizen access to information. But as the experience of others, including that of poor and repressive countries demonstrates, passing an authentic Freedom of Information Act will not transform the country overnight into a haven of honesty. Neither will it make the distribution of wealth equitable enough to make the fruits of the economic development the Aquino administration has been trumpeting available to the legions of Filipino poor.

If implemented seriously, however, an authentic FOIA can help make information on matters that bear on the imperative of eliminating or at least minimizing poverty available, so the citizenry can determine what it is in the governance of this country, or in the conduct of the private sector, that has prevented Philippine society from moving forward enough to make poverty a thing of the past, or at least the exception rather than the rule among the rapidly growing population.

The entire citizenry and not only the advocates of access to information have an interest in the bill now pending in Congress. How the bill fares finally will depend on the amendments that will inevitably be made on it as it goes through the legislative mill. It may not even survive, as happened in the 14th and 15th Congress. But even if it does pass in a form consistent with the fundamental right to information, its implementation will be the next thing the public will have to watch. A FOIA is not the open sesame to a world of riches. But it would be a start.

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Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro)
Published in Business World
September 5, 2013

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