29 September 2013

UP ALYANSA: Pass the People's FOI Act Now!

UP ALYANSA at the #LightUp4FOI event at the
House of Representatives last 27 September 2013.
In 2002, more than half a century after the very first session of the UN General Assembly that pronounced* freedom of information (FOI) as a "fundamental human right" and the "touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated," advocates and organizations from around the world, gathered in a conference in Bulgaria, declared the 28th of September as the International Right to Know Day. Since that day, around 65 countries** have adopted their own versions of laws implementing FOI, constituting about two thirds of today's total number of countries with FOI laws.

In the Philippines, the citizens' right to access public information was first nominally recognized under the 1973 Constitution. This was followed by a declaration in the 1987 Constitution of full public disclosure as a policy of the State. However, without a law providing for procedures and penalties for violations, these express constitutional provisions have been nothing more than words on paper. Indeed, without an FOI act, Marcos smoothly facilitated a dictatorship, Estrada and Arroyo freely stole while in power, and Napoles, transcending administrations, schemed for senators and congressmen fake projects and NGOs.

Thus, in the midst of scandals of systemic corruption orchestrated for years and decades beyond the public eye, UP Alyansa ng mga Mag-aaral para sa Panlipunang Katwiran at Kaunlaran (UP ALYANSA), in solidarity with more than a hundred other organizations under the FOI Youth Initiative (FYI) and the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition, challenges the legislature on this eve of the International Right to Know Day: Legislate the People's FOI Act now.

For a right so basic in any democracy, the struggle for freedom of information in the country has been far too long. 

As years pass by without an FOI act, billions and billions of public funds are lost to secret transactions and unexplained items of expenditures in government. The pork barrel scam today, for example, covers several years of misuse and misappropriation in the past that would have been discovered earlier by the public under the People's FOI Act. If only the measure were already in force, ordinary citizens would have had the right to demand, through appropriate procedures, information on PDAF projects in the past - including reports on disbursements and whether or not the projects were in fact implemented. If officials charged with custody of these documents refused, penalties under the law would have been imposed.

Beyond procedures and penalties, however, the People's FOI Act also represents a crucial element of democratic political life: a culture of participatory governance. If passed, the People's FOI Act will institutionalize people power by providing access to information needed by ordinary citizens to take a more active role in policymaking, administration, and service delivery. Indeed, beyond the obvious benefits of the measure to media institutions, the People's FOI Act will also encourage professionals, academics, volunteers, and legitimate non-profit organizations, with their dynamism and political will, to conduct research initiatives, start visionary projects, and assist government in its various services. The end result is a mature democratic culture wherein both government and civil society serve as key partners in governance.

The struggle for freedom of information in the country must now therefore end. While we laud the recent expression of support from Malacanang and the start of plenary debates over the proposed legislation in the Senate, the real battle now lies in the House of Representatives, where the bill met its fiercest, albeit hushed, opposition in the previous Congress.

Thus, we challenge the President, who promised passage of the bill during his election campaign in 2010, to start walking the talk and certify the People's FOI Act as urgent. Indeed, without an FOI act, the Aquino administration would have practically failed in its anti-corruption drive. Without the passage of the People's FOI Act, the tuwid na daan will be nothing more than a PR campaign and a slogan for impeaching and arresting opponents.

Pass the People's Freedom of Information Act NOW!


* Resolution 59(I) of the United Nations General Assembly: http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/59(I)&Lang=E&Area=RESOLUTION

** Secondary statistic from http://right2info.org/access-to-information-laws/access-to-information-laws-overview-and-statutory#_ftnref7

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