If all truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them. —Galileo Galilei (Italian astronomer and physicist, 1564-1642)
And you shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free. –Book of John, Chapter 8, Verse 32
IF there’s one thing glaringly absent from the President’s legislative agenda now lodged with the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (Ledac), it’s the absence of the proposed Freedom of Information Act.
The private sector, especially the foreign chambers of commerce, have been clamoring for it, and yet their pleas don’t seem to get across to Malacañang. It’s a shame because if there’s one reform initiative that would really make a difference quickly in the life of this country in the next three years without entailing any financial cost, it would be such a law. We may call it the “Freedom of Access to Information Act,” or to be more ambitious, the “Transparency in Governance Act.”
Accordingly, the Ledac has divided the current legislative agenda into three—economic progress; educational reform and social equity; and peace and order and the rule of law.
These are all laudable reform initiatives, but even if most of these new pieces of legislation are passed under the new Congress, they would never achieve anything substantial unless these are done under complete transparency. And this country, despite its pretensions to democracy and openness, has never been a completely open society.
Major government transactions, especially those done in the name of “progress and economic development”—transactions that always ended with extracting money from the general public in terms of taxes, fees, levies and sacrifices—have always been done with complete secrecy up to the highest levels of power. It’s only during the time that the general public felt they are being shafted did they start to suspect that some “genius” up there must have sold the country’s soul to the devil.
The rogues’ gallery of failed or dubious projects keeps growing: the Joc-joc Bolante fertilizer scam, the Naia Terminal 3, and, lately, the multibillion national broadband network (NBN) and cyber-education project (CEP).
These are the latest examples, and we don’t seem to run out of these mega scams. Why? The reason invariably points to a complete lack of transparency in governance—thanks to the lack of a formal mechanism by which citizens can demand information from the government. We don’t have clear mechanisms by which each citizen who will suffer the consequences of bad deals being contracted in our name could have complete access to contracts being signed by some bureaucrats. The clearest example of this is the NBN and the CEP, where the people’s clamor for transparency is being shrugged off by the declaration that the multibillion projects are “government-to-government transactions” and therefore could never be questioned.
One could easily know the real story behind these controversial and questionable deals by looking at the minutes of meetings of Neda’s Investment Coordinating Agency, yet journalists and citizens could never have access to these documents because government officials invoke “executive privilege” as quickly as one can blink an eye. If we want this country to move forward and join the rest of the progressive world, we should let sunshine into all government activities, policies, processes, meetings and outputs. A comprehensive law on transparency in governance can ensure that.
As in the United States, the law should mandate making accessible all vital government documents and records, especially those related to infrastructure development revenue collections, loans, procurement and implementation of economic and social programs and projects. It should prescribe simple rules for citizens to access relevant information.
The law should penalize government officials and bodies who hinder access to all these information. By default, all government records, transactions and activities should be deemed public records or documents, which each citizen should have access to, subject to very few limitations on “national-security” grounds.
Each citizen has an inherent right to information; hence, a person filing requests for information doesn’t have to specify the reason for his request. In the US, government agencies are supposed to respond to these requests within 15 days. More important, this law should mandate “open meetings” to allow citizens to participate in important government meetings, should they so desire.
Globally, about 70 countries and territories have freedom of information legislations. These include Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, the European Union, Hong Kong, India and Thailand. At least 17 more countries, including Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya and Sri Lanka, are in the process of crafting their own.
The Philippines should have its own freedom of information legislation. It’s high time the government stops treating people like mushrooms in the dark constantly being fed horseshit. (Note: this piece was originally drafted as editorial for BusinessMirror, 14 Aug 2007)
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