Diplo-pinion: Breaking the Cycle of Corruption in the Philippines (Freedom of Information)

Corruption has been a primary source of concern in the Philippines ever since the nation was granted its independence in 1946. In recent years, emphasis has been placed on passing a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act that would allow citizens to access information regarding government activities and spending and hopefully expose and prevent rampant corruption in government through transparency. This article will discuss the Philippine FOI bill, its importance and some of its potential drawbacks.

Freedoms of Information (FOI) Acts are standard in most democratic governments. These laws guarantee that information held by state organizations can be accessed and scrutinized by the public. In theory, these types of laws ensure access through ease of process, prohibition of extreme costs, and a well-defined list of exceptions to the rule. The person requesting the information is not required to give a reason, and if the department that has been requested denies the information they must explain why and possibly defend themselves legally. In the Philippines, there is already a provision within the Bill of Rights that recognizes the people’s right to public information. However, there is no bill which guarantees this right or provides guidelines for procedures or penalties against those who refuse to recognize this right or its application.

Many years of corruption and political turmoil have led up to the current focus and urgency in passing this act. During the regime of President Marcos, censorship was so bad that military officers were posted in newsrooms in order to ensure that no negative news would ever go out. Marcos himself was accused of stealing somewhere between $5 and $10 billion dollars during his 20 years in office. Joseph Estrada assumed the presidency in 1998 and subsequently earned a place on Transparency International’s top ten lists for most corrupt leaders in the world. When President Arroyo entered into office, she made many promises of reform but was also placed under attack for rampant corruption. In 2009, the Philippines ranked 139th of 180 countries on the corruption index.

The current state of affairs has the Freedom of Information Act on the drawing board for the last 15 years. Current Philippine President Beningo S. Aquino’s promises that the bill is being worked on and other government assurances that the bill will be approved before the year’s end are falling on skeptical ears. A battle of words between the media and the government has kept this endless revision process prominently in the news.

The Freedom of Information Act is important to the alleviation of corruption in many ways. While the exact text of the bill is still subject to constant revisions, the general requirements of a proper FOI bill contain some key points:

• A simple and uniform procedure for accessing information
• Defined penalties for those who refuse to disclose information
• Legal recourse for the public if information is denied
• Definition of all agencies that are subject to the act as well as those who are exempted and the conditions under which exceptions may be made.
• Required improvement in government record keeping, including language accessibility and understandable record keeping.
• Limitations to the costs involved in acquiring records.

The combination of these defined rights and procedures allows no questions to be called in when information is requested by the public. This will, in theory, help to alleviate corruption by putting every political entity into the spotlight where they can be examined by those who feel those entities are not performing as they should.

The potential backlash from such a bill is of major concern to many people, especially politicians. This debate revolves around the possibility of the information being used by the media or other self-interested organizations to attack politicians or incite the public. The country has just come from an extended time of political turmoil and any upset to that could set them back many years in their development of a stable and productive political system. President Aquino has voiced his own fears that the FOI may be used to compromise national security matters. Despite these concerns, the government’s tendency has been to delay rather than making it a priority bill for passage into law.

As of early August, 2011 the Freedom of Information Act bill is still sitting around Congress awaiting more revisions. President Aquino did not even mention the bill in his July State of the Nation Address. In the eyes of critics, particularly the media, this makes it appear as if the act is not, and may never be a priority bill. Journalists cry foul and claim that there is no sincerity in promises to fight corruption and that the bill is being “watered down” so that the government can get around it when the need arises.

Whether the Freedom of Information Act goes through by the end of the year as promised, and in what form it eventually emerges, may well determine the ability of the Philippine islands and its people to get rid of the scourge of rampant corruption in government that has stymied the country’s economic progress for decades.