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Double-talk on FOI: Philippine gov?t long on promises, short on political will

by Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition Sunday, Sep. 25, 2011 at 1:55 AM

On President Aquino?s Open Governance Partnership (OGP) ON 20 SEPTEMBER 2011 in New York, President Benigno S. Aquino III will deliver the keynote address at the Open Government Partnership (OGP) forum dubbed ?The Power of Open: A Global Discussion?. The conference brings together governments and representatives of civil society, industry, academe, and media. The panels will discuss the role of openness in improving government responsiveness and accountability, fighting corruption, and creating efficiencies, innovation and growth.

Double-talk on FOI: ...
2011-philippines-protest-foi-pnoy-noynoy-aquino.jpg, image/jpeg, 480x288

Later in the day, President Aquino will join high-level representatives of seven other countries (US, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, South Africa, and UK) that along with the Philippines comprise the government members of the OGP steering committee. They will officially launch the OGP by signing a declaration of principles, and by submitting their respective country action plans for greater openness. They will also welcome a new group of 29 countries, as of the latest update, into the OGP fold.

The OGP is a multilateral initiative led by the US that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to scale up their current open government practices and norms to promote transparency, empower citizens, and fight corruption.

In his remarks at the conference, and in his interaction with world leaders, President Aquino will score political (and economic) points on the world stage when he renders a rosy picture of the transparency, accountability, and participation initiatives of his administration.

But on the home front, we do not find credible basis for President Aquino to beat his breast as an exemplar of transparency and open government in the world.

More than 14 months into his term, President Aquino has not mustered the political will to honor his campaign pact with the people` to assure the passage of the Freedom of Information Act, the legislation the country needs to provide substantive, procedural, and institutional guarantee to the people’s constitutional right to information.

Instead, the promise of support has since turned into ever-mutating Presidential concerns over the FOI bill. After months of work by a Malacañang study group on the FOI bill, we have not seen any appreciable advance in the President’s position, or lack of position on the matter.

The lack of political will on the part of President Aquino to push for the passage of the FOI law is mirrored in the lack of credible commitment in the draft action plan for OGP prepared by Department of Budget and Management Secretary Florencio B. Abad for President Aquino’s approval. The draft Plan speaks of the FOI in one and only one paragraph:

“Pushing for Freedom of Information. The government will strive for the passage of a Freedom of Information Act within the current presidency, in consultation with CSOs. Pending this, it will develop and issue an executive-wide policy to improve access to information – including requirements for accurate, timely and understandable summary disclosures by government departments through their websites – within 360 days.”

We do not find comfort in the draft plan’s statement that President Aquino’s administration will “strive for the passage of a Freedom of Information Act within the current presidency”. On the contrary, it has been his statements of concern and refusal to endorse the passage of the FOI law that has been the main reason why it is now languishing in the House of Representatives, and moving at a snail’s pace in the Senate.

Neither do we find comfort in the draft’s promise of an executive-wide policy to improve access to information. It will be limited in coverage and application only to the executive agencies, thereby exempting the judiciary and the legislature, as well as independent constitutional bodies. It will not settle strategic legal gaps like exceptions and penalties for denial of access to information requests, and other matters that only the legislature may resolve. It could be revised or reversed at the whim and caprice of succeeding Presidents, if not the incumbent President.

We did consider such an executive order to be a good interim measure at the start of President Aquino’s term, under the premise that he would categorically and unambiguously support the immediate passage of the FOI law. But at this point where we have been endlessly running after his elusive concerns, we see the proposed executive-wide policy as only justifying the further delay in the passage of the FOI law.

We therefore see the draft Philippine Action Plan’s offer to have an executive order – with a feeble assurance that the government will see after the passage of an FOI Act before President Aquino bows out of power in 2016 – as legitimizing President Aquino’s low transparency comfort zone, and his ignoring of the long standing people’s clamor for an FOI law.

While we acknowledge ongoing transparency efforts by the executive, these have been uneven and concentrated mainly in those headed by secretaries that are more open to transparency and accountability practices, such as DBM and DILG.

Also, there have been serious reversals in access to disclosures (statement of assets, liabilities, and net worth or SALN) by public officials. The judiciary has long clamped on access to SALNs of Justices and judges. At the Office of the Ombudsman, there remains a 2009 guideline (Memorandum Circular No. 1) that limits the “legitimate” reasons for requests, requires requests to be subscribed and sworn to, and introduces a wide discretion for denying requests for SALNs. More recently, the Civil Service Commission adopted Resolution No. 100356 dated March 15, 2011, which also required that requests for SALNs be sworn to, imposes additional documentation support from requesters, and charges a fee of P200 (US) for a copy of each SALN. All these run counter to the access standards prescribed by Republic Act No. 6713, or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees.

In sum, piecemeal and uneven transparency efforts will not institutionalize public access to information the way passage of the FOI law would.

In truth, it is within President Aquino’s power, in fact, it is his constitutional duty, to decisively assist rather than hinder the immediate passage of the FOI law. The OGP process provides the President another opportunity (after missing out on FOI in his inaugural address, two state of the nation addresses, and two Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council Meetings) to show political will.

The Philippine Action Plan for OGP needs to express full, firm, and explicit commitment to the immediate passage of the FOI law in the present Congress. In practical terms, this will require the President to provide a definite list of his concerns, and for the executive to draw up its proposed amendments and to present them to Congress within the remaining months of 2011 for wide consultation and legislative action.

Failing in this, we call a spade a spade: double-talk is the Aquino government’s FOI policy.

THE RIGHT TO KNOW, RIGHT KNOW! COALITION

16 September 2011

Signed:

1. Atty. Nepomuceno Malaluan, Co-Director, Institute for Freedom of Information

2. Mr. Vincent Lazatin, Executive Director, Transparency and Accountability Network

3. Ms. Malou Mangahas, Executive Director, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

4. Bishop Broderick Pabillo, National Director, Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines – National Secretariat for Social Action, Justice and Peace

5. Rep. Walden Bello, Akbayan Partylist, House of Representatives

6. Mr. Red Batario, Executive Director; Ms. G Sevilla Alvarez

Center for Community Journalism and Development

7. Ms. Rowena Caranza-Paraan, Secretary General, National Union of Journalists of the Philippines

8. Mr. Ramon R. Tuazon, President

Dr. Madz B. Quiamco, Dean of Graduate School

Dr. Florangel Rosario-Braid, Trustee, Senior Adviser and President Emeritus

Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication

9. Mr. Edgar Palarca, President

Ms. Annie Enriquez Geron, General Secretary

Ms. Crispiniano Tayong, Deputy General Secretary, Mindanao Regional Council

Mr. Gil Villegas, Deputy General Secretary, Visayas Regional Council

Mr. Reynaldo Jesuitas, Deputy General Secretary, Luzon Regional Council

Mr. Edilberto Pardinas, Deputy General Secretary, NCR Regional Council

Public Services Labor Independent Confederation (PSLINK)

10. Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility

11. Prof. Leonor M. Briones, Lead Convenor, Social Watch Philippines

12. Ms. Ana Maria R. Nemenzo, National Coordinator, WomanHealth Philippines

13. Ms. Jenina Joy Chavez, Coordinator, Focus on the Global South – Philippines

14. Ms. Maxine Tanya Hamada, Executive Director, The International Center for Innovation, Transformation, and Excellence in Governance (INCITEGov)

15. Mr. Joshua Mata, Secretary General, Alliance of Progressive Labor

16. Mr. Elso U. Cabangon, Secretary General, Filipino Migrant Workers Group

17. Mr. Isagani Serrano, President, Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement

18. Prof. Rene Ofreneo, Director, Center for Labor Justice

19. Ms. Yuen Abana, Campaign Coordinator, Partido ng Mangagawa

20. Atty. Eirene Jhone Aguila, Kaya Natin! Movement for Good Governance

21. Ms. Judy A. Pasimio, Executive Director, Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center (LRC-KsK/Friends of the Earth-Phils)

22. Ms. Starjoan D. Villanueva, Executive Director, Alternate Forum for Research in Mindanao

23. Mr. Gus Miclat, Executive Director, Initiatives for International Dialogue

24. Ms. Maita F. Gomez, Coordinator, Bantay Kita

25. Ms. Jessica Reyes-Cantos, Lead Convenor, Rice Watch and Action Network

26. Mr. Norman V. Cabrera, Secretary General, Ang Kapatiran Party

27. Mr. Jaybee Garganera, National Coordinator, Alyansa Tigil Mina

28. Mr. Joseph Purugganan, Coordinator, EU-ASEAN FTA Campaign Network-Philippines

29. Ms. Carol Arguillas, Chairperson, MindaNews

30. Mr. Chester Amparo, Secretary General, Kilusan Para sa Pambansang Demokrasya

31. Ms. Rorie Fajardo, Project Manager, Philippine Public Transparency Reporting Project

32. Mr. Rogelio Abdulrachman Teves, Co-convenor, Development Roundtable Series – Mindanao

33. Mr. Rolando Pacanot, OIC Secretary General, Freedom from Debt Coalition – Southern Mindanao

34. Mr. Romeo Cabugnason, Chairman, Alyansa ng Maralitang Pilipino

35. Bro. Jun Pastoral, Chairperson, Sanlakas – Davao

36. Prof. Joseph Y. Lim

37. Mr. Floro Francisco

38. Mr. Sammy Gamboa

39. Mr. Fred Lubang, Regional Representative, Nonviolence International Southeast Asia

40. Mr. Mark Dia, Country Representative, Greenpeace Southeast Asia (Philippines)

41. Ms. Tin Borja, Chairperson, UP ALYANSA, UP Diliman

42. Ms. Mabel Ogoshi, President, BUKLOD CSSP, UP Diliman

43. Ms. Diega Villanueva, President, UP Organization of Human Rights Advocates, College of Law, UP Diliman

44. Ms. Ellene A. Sana, Executive Director, Center for Migrant Advocacy

45. Mr. Salvador H. Feranil, Managing Director, Philippine Network of Rural Development Institutes – PhilNet-RDI in Mindanao

46. Mr. Abner Francisco, Program Director, Pulso ng Bayan, DXCA Charm Radio-Kidapawan and Chairperson, Watchful Advocates for Transparent, Clean and Honest Governance (WATCH)-Kidapawan, North Cotabato

47. Mr. Ledrolen Manriquez, Acting National Coordinator;

Mr. Charlie Saceda, Projects Coordinator

PECOJON-The Peace and Conflict Journalism Network Philippines

48. Mr. Neptalie Batolenio, National Union of Journalists of the Philippines – Misamis Occidental

49. Fr. Archie Casey, Justice and Peace and Integrity of Creation, Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines

50. Mr. Walter I. Balane, President, Bukidnon Press Club

http://www.apl.org.ph/?p=1225

http://www.apl.org.ph/?p=818

http://www.pcij.org/resources/nepo-malaluan-right-to-know-right-now.pdf

__________________________________________________________

Open Letter to Philippine President Aquino (PNoy) on FOI

His Excellency

BENIGNO S. AQUINO III

President of the Philippines

Malacañan Palace

Manila

Subject: FOI and the draft Philippine Action Plan for OGP

Dear Mr. President:

We write on behalf of the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition, a network of about 150 organizations and individuals from various social sectors and civil-society groups, which have long been campaigning for the passage of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.

We are informed that on 20 September 2011, you will deliver the keynote address at the Open Government Partnership (OGP) conference in New York, sign an Open Government Declaration, and submit an Action Plan to scale-up your administration’s open government practices.

These are in line with our country’s membership in the eight-country steering committee of the OGP along with the United States, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. Such membership in the steering committee required targeting governments that have a demonstrated commitment to open government evaluated through a point system in the four areas of budget documents transparency, disclosure of asset records of elected and senior public officials, enacting an access to information law, and fostering citizen engagement.

We welcome our country’s membership in the OGP steering committee. To us, it reflects your desire to assume an honored place in the international stage as one of the leading lights of transparency and accountability in the world.

Beyond such aspiration, however, your administration’s commitment to the OGP principles can be measured by the Action Plan that you will submit. It is in this context that we comment on the draft Philippine Government Action Plan prepared by Secretary Florencio B. Abad, in consultation with other Cabinet members. We are informed that today, this draft Philippine Action Plan will be presented to you for your approval.

It is in this context that we wish to provide you with our feedback, as part of our continuing effort to engage your administration on the issue of the people’s right to information.

First, we note that the draft plan focuses on four main areas for the scaling up of open government commitments: the national budget, local governance, procurement, and poverty reduction programs. On the whole, we support the scaling up of open government initiatives by the Philippines in these areas. Our member organizations are striving to be more directly engaged in these areas to this day.

Second, we had conveyed to Secretary Abad our hope that future consultations on the OGP will be substantially widened to surface areas where acute problems of transparency and accountability need scaled-up response. The areas so far concentrated on by the draft action plan are the ones led by members of your cabinet who have shown greater commitment to transparency, where civil society organizations and donor agencies have historically vigorously engaged the Philippine government on, where multi-stakeholder transparency mechanisms have gained traction in, and where certain disclosure practices have been introduced even years ahead of the birth of your administration.

Our core concern, however, is the draft action plan’s lack of firm, credible commitment for the prompt passage of the long-overdue Freedom of Information Act.

The draft action plan commits the following:

“Pushing for Freedom of Information. The government will strive for the passage of a Freedom of Information Act within the current presidency, in consultation with CSOs. Pending this, it will develop and issue an executive-wide policy to improve access to information – including requirements for accurate, timely and understandable summary disclosures by government departments through their websites – within 360 days.”

We do not find comfort in the draft plan’s statement that your government will “strive for the passage of a Freedom of Information Act within the current presidency”. With all due respect, in our view it has been the ambiguous and vague statements coming from your office regarding the passage of the Freedom of Information bill that has been the main reason why it is now languishing in the House of Representatives, and moving at a snail’s pace in the Senate. Despite repeated appeals for your endorsement, and months of work by a Malacañang study group on the FOI bill, we have not seen any appreciable advance in your position.

Neither do we find comfort in the draft’s promise of an executive-wide policy to improve access to information. For one, an executive order will not be able to settle the gaps in the limits of access coverage and exceptions, as this is a legislative matter. For another, its application will be limited to the executive, even as access issues are present as well in the other branches of government and in independent constitutional bodies. It also cannot prescribe sanctions that are penal in nature.

We did consider such executive order to be a good interim measure at the start of your term, under the premise that you would categorically and unambiguously support the immediate passage of the FOI law. But at this point where we seem to be endlessly running after your elusive concerns, we see the said executive-wide policy as only justifying the further delay in the passage of the FOI law.

We humbly submit that it is within your power, in fact, we believe it is your constitutional duty, to provide a true scale-up of open government commitment on access to information. A crucial starting point is for the Action Plan to express full, firm, and explicit commitment to the immediate passage of the FOI law in the present Congress, and within the remaining months of 2011, to present to Congress your proposed amendments that address your concerns on the FOI bill.

It is the presence or absence of such commitment that will determine for us whether we will view the action plan and your OGP activities in New York as facilitating a significant scaling up of transparency mechanisms and practices, or sadly, only legitimizing your transparency comfort zone and your ignoring of the long standing people’s clamor for an FOI law.

Thank you very much.

Very truly yours, on behalf of Right to Know. Right Now! Coalition:

Atty. Nepomuceno A. Malaluan

Ms. Malou Mangahas

Mr. Vincent Lazatin

(Co-Convenors)

http://www.apl.org.ph/?p=1219

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