ISPEAK: Why was the President quiet on FOI?

It is already the fifth State of the Nation Address (SONA) of President Benigno Aquino III, yet still no mention of the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill as a priority of Congress.

The passage of the FOI is one of the President’s campaign commitments. He also has recently made a public pronouncement that the bill will be passed under his term. (READ: Palace explains 'missing FOI' in SONA)

It is for these reasons that everybody was anticipating a presidential nod to FOI in the SONA. Instead, silence.


The critics have a point in saying that there seems to be a dissonance between the key platform of the administration, which is good governance, and its ambivalence on the FOI. Access to information is a pre-requisite to good governance, after all.

While the administration continues to set up mechanisms and support initiatives that promote transparency, participation and accountability, it seems lackluster in pursuing a measure acknowledged worldwide to have helped reduce corruption.

While the President himself emphasizes the importance of building people's trust towards public institutions, he seems to not fully appreciate the central role played by free access to information in building public trust.

So what's wrong?

It's been mentioned in circles of advocates that the administration is apprehensive about the FOI bill for two key issues: corruption in media and the possibility that the measure will be used more by the powerful with vested interests than ordinary citizens for empowerment.

Are these issues valid?

The advocates would argue that the FOI has a self-correcting feature. Free information by itself is a check that will balance the use of information by and for vested interests.

Meanwhile, the problem of mechanisms for transparency, accountability and participation that are not maximized by ordinary citizens due to lack of means is true as well. Obviously, for citizens, especially the poor, to participate and use the spaces in governance, they need the capacity and support. This remains a big gap.

Even civil society organizations (CSOs), which serve as intermediaries between the government and citizens, are feeling the inadequacy to maximize the available spaces for participation. More than ever, helping enable the citizens make use of relevant mechanisms is pressing because government processes have never been this open and accessible.

Checking asymmetry

While free information is neutral, in a socio-economic context plagued by sharp asymmetries of power and resources, free information would tend to favor the powerful. The current FOI Bill version has yet to convincingly address this.

There is one way to correct this. Balance the playing field by providing preferential support to those who lack the means in making use of free information. It would be be best if this is incorporated in the bill itself.

Unless we have this corrective feature, there will always be reservations on whether the FOI would truly advance pro-people reforms given the present political context.

Of course, the play of taking this advocacy one step at a time is valid and wise too. Pass the bill now and amend its weaknesses and gaps later.

However, we will bound to still deal with the same problem of participatory and transparency mechanisms that are under-utilized by ordinary citizens. At the very least, there should be an effort to recognize this major limitation and devise a strategy to address it.

Access not equal to empowerment

We must disabuse our minds from the assumption that mechanisms for participation, including those that do not have preferential support for ordinary citizens, will automatically lead to citizen empowerment.

Oftentimes, these mechanisms end up being abused by the rich and the powerful simply because the rich have the means that ordinary citizens lack. We often end up having to correct this flaw through civil society actions and reform efforts in the government, which also have its own set of difficulties.

But more importantly from a political perspective, these issues must be tackled once and for all to put to rest the apprehension consistently being raised by Malacañang. Doing so will not only make the FOI advocacy pro-active in addressing existing limitations on citizen empowerment, but will leave the president with no other choice but to support the passage of an FOI Law. 

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