Freedom of Information
THE COUNTRY’s freedom of information (FOI) measure has been pushed to the backburner by every Congress in the last 29 years. As a bill, FOI has been filed and refiled several times in the last nine congresses, reaching the farthest stage of legislation in the bicameral conference in February 2010, when it was ratified by the Senate but not by the House of Representatives reportedly due to lack of quorum.
No wonder then that President Rodrigo Duterte’s Executive Order No. 2 (EO 2) which he signed last July 23 was hailed as an historic achievement. Though limited only to the executive branch of government, the current administration took pride in having implemented such an initiative on Duterte’s 24th day in office.
The EO was still incomplete at the time, as the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) were still finalizing the inventory of exceptions to information access found in existing law or jurisprudence. When the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) released an unofficial list of 166 limitations last August 28, critics pointed out that these rendered the EO toothless and potentially made it more restrictive than the bills that have been filed previously in Congress.
The list was eventually narrowed down to nine exceptions on November 24, which are:
- Information covered by executive privilege;
- Privileged information relating to national security, defense, or international relations;
- Information concerning law enforcement and protection of public and personal safety;
- Information deemed confidential for the protection of the privacy and certain individuals such as minors, victims of crimes or the accused;
- Information, documents, or records known by reason of official capacity and are deemed as confidential, including those submitted or disclosed by entities to government agencies, tribunals and boards or officers, in relation to the performance of their functions or to inquires or investigation conducted by them in the exercise of their administrative, regulatory or quasi-judicial powers;
- Prejudicial, premature disclosure;
- Records of proceedings or information from proceedings which pursuant to law or relevant rules and regulations are treated as confidential or privileged;
- Matters considered confidential under banking and finance laws and their amendatory laws, and;
- Other exceptions to the right to information under laws, jurisprudence, and rules and regulations.
The ninth item serves as catch-all representing whatever remained in the first count of 166 limitations. Number 9 sends us back to square one.
Furthering the FOI initiative, the government launched on November 25 an electronic FOI portal, one day after the exceptions were circularized. Aiming to integrate in this platform all government agencies by 2018, Malacanang included 15 executive offices in the rollout of the website.
From November 25 to December 31, 328 requests were filed by citizens—both media and non-media—in the e-FOI portal. Within this period, the Departments of Health, Transportation, Budget and Management, the Philippine Statistics Authority, and the Philippine National Police received the most number of requests.
According to a December 29 Congress press release, the House Committee on Public Information presented during a hearing the draft of the FOI substitute bill, which consolidated 33 bills, one House resolution and one privilege speech.
Concerned agencies and organizations attended the hearing to give their suggestions and comments, among them: the National Privacy Commission (NPC), Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC), Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), Philippine National Police (PNP), Department of National Defense (DND), Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP) and the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition (R2KRN).
Deliberations were set to resume after the Christmas break.
CHEERS | JEERS
CMFR file photo
Information Access: On Paper but Not in Practice
Posted on: October 13, 2016
CHEERS TO the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) for reporting the failure of some government agencies to respond to its requests for information on the conduct of the administration’s anti-drug campaign.
PCIJ reported that 40 days since it and the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) sent access-to-information requests separately to the Philippine National Police (PNP), the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) and the Department of Justice (DOJ), the three agencies still have not responded “definitively and satisfactorily.”
In its October 7 article “FOI request on drug war data: PNP, DILG, DOJ won’t open up”, PCIJ said that they only received notices that the request was received and forwarded to the various offices for action. According to law, government agencies should act on requests within 15 working days.
Past the fifteen-day period, PCIJ received only “a paltry Powerpoint presentation” of the number of casualties of the drug war. There was no response to the follow-up letters of either PCIJ or FLAG which asked for more information.
PCIJ cited President Rodrigo Duterte’s executive order (EO) on the freedom of information (FOI) as basis of their data requests. PCIJ asked for the following information: the names and identities of the persons killed in relation to the ‘war on drugs’ and the surrounding circumstances of their death; written guidelines on the police’s role and conduct of the anti-drug campaign; the rules of engagement of the PNP; documents on the persons who surrendered and subsequent actions taken by the authorities in these cases.
The report said that “In less than two months, PCIJ alone has sent six letters and made at least 26 calls and six visits to the DOJ, DILG, and PNP.” PCIJ also summarized in a narrative timeline the status of its requests, including and the names and responses of the persons they talked to in the three agencies.
PCIJ also noted that Director General Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, chief of the PNP, had submitted copies of police spot reports on drug-related killings to the Senate, but soon after recalled the documents because President Duterte had asked to read and review the documents himself. This was also reported previously by GMA News Online and Rappler.
Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II denied receiving requests on drug war data, a statement that Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella echoed in response to a question from the media. In a separate article published on October 8, PCIJ uploaded scanned images of the receiving copies of their letters to the DOJ.
By leading in the effort to obtain information through the FOI EO, the press sets a good example to the public, encouraging ordinary citizens to exercise their right to access records themselves and to assess government’s response to issues involving human rights, social services and other matters of public interest.
Screengrab from Manila Bulletin website.
FOI EO: Erroneous and Confusing
Posted on: July 29, 2016
JEERS TO the Manila Bulletin for its erroneous and confusing story that said the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill has been signed into law.
The Bulletin’s front-page report “Historic FOI signed into law” last July 25 said, “The public can finally gain greater access to government documents, including Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) of government officials, after President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law the historic Freedom of Information (FOI) bill.”
However, the report also mentioned that the FOI is a “new executive order” that covers only government agencies under the executive branch. The four journalists in the byline of the report are clearly uninformed and confused.
The online version of the report has been updated and now carries the headline “Historic FOI signed into executive order” but the text remains the same.
President Rodrigo Duterte signed the executive order “Operationalizing in the Executive Branch People’s Constitutional Right to Information and the State Policies of Full Public Disclosure and Transparency in the Public Service and Providing Guidelines Therefor” last Sunday, July 24. When the 16th Congress failed to pass the FOI into law, the process requires a new bill to be submitted to the legislative process requiring both Senate and House approval.
As of this writing, several lawmakers including Senators Loren Legarda and Grace Poe have re-filed their respective versions of an FOI bill in Congress.
*All Monitors Updated for MediaTimes