Freedom of Information Act in the Philippines
The Freedom of Information (FOI) Act is an important piece of legislation which has been passed in many countries to promote transparency in the government's administrative process. With this act, citizens are empowered to make a formal request to get information which is held by the government, barring certain sensitive and important data related to the nation's security. In some countries, this law also states that the government is duty-bound to publish information in the spirit of openness and transparency.
In most countries, their constitutions provide the right to information. However, unless this has been passed as legislation, it does not have much power and the request for information can be rejected. Unfortunately, this has been the case in Philippines for the past fourteen years. While Section 7 of Article III recognizes the right to information, and even the Supreme Court has passed many decisions based on this right, still there is no legislation which lays out accessing procedures for information, or penalties when this right is denied.
A Lower House bill for FOI was passed in the Philippines in 2008, but the counterpart bill needed in the Senate to make it into a law is still pending. In 2009, the bill failed ratification because the House of Representatives lacked the required quorum. Several attempts were made after that but the situation remains almost the same. President PNoy has lately come under a lot of criticism for failing to make FOI a priority bill.
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President Benigno Aquino III indicated he was not ready to include the freedom of information (FOI) bill on his list of priority measures, saying too much transparency may prove to be a bane rather than a benefit.
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Many people are quite confused about the president's intentions as he seems to be sending mixed signals. On one hand the president is participating with eight other countries in the Open Government Partnership (OGP) initiated by President Obama of United States. This partnership is for promoting active participation of citizens in the governing process and increasing transparency in all procedures.
On the other hand, the president is not taking any credible steps for making the Freedom of Information Act a reality. He even failed to discuss FOI in his recent address to the nation which was only a few days after the OGP meeting.
The main argument of the government is that it is difficult to achieve the right balance between stopping the revelation of sensitive data and providing information which may be required by the public. The congress and government have been working on the bill for a long time but have not come to a conclusive format and it may take longer to draft the ideal bill.
In this regard, it is important to discuss the merits and demerits of Freedom of Information Act in general. The merits of course are many, and the main ones are transparency in governing processes and legitimate distribution of funds allotted for various public purposes. In any governing body, there are always different levels of bureaucratic corruption which can be drastically reduced by a strong FOI act. People can access info about the allocation of public money and how it is being used. Government departments can be held accountable if there is any discrepancy in the data and the actual work done. People can also gather data about projects which are unduly stalled and form a strong case against the public officials. In many countries which have strong FOI laws, there is an emergence of activist groups who keep a strong eye on various aspects of the governing process. They act as watchdogs, which in itself serves as a strong deterrent for any misuse of funds or complacency.
Disadvantages of Freedom of Information Act
Although there are many merits to having a Freedom of Information Act, there are certain disadvantages that cannot be overlooked. The main one is the threat to national security, which can be internal or external. Certain information could be used to incite strong public disturbance and riots which could possibly destabilize the government. Complaints of a frivolous nature can cause a huge waste of time and funds of the government, or for discrediting politicians and public officials for partisan purposes and gain. External threats also cannot be ruled out, as certain sensitive financial information can get into the hands of other countries that are plotting to cause trouble.
However, one cannot disregard the Freedom of Information Act solely on the basis of these demerits. They can be overcome by putting in clauses and safeguards which can offset the disadvantages. Neighbouring countries like India, Indonesia and Thailand have passed effective legislation, which not only empower the public to get the relevant information but also safeguards the sovereignty of these respective countries. Therefore, it is quite clear that effective legislation is possible and that it simply all boils down to the will of the Philippine government and the politicians to make this into a reality.