Saturday, January 24, 2009

Obama keeps his Blackberry or What Philippine President Gloria Arroyo can learn from Obama about transparency

It must have been a poor joke that fell flat, got stomped on and kicked around.

Philippine Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita was said to remarked that US President Barack Obama might have a thing or two to learn from President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Ermita said in an article found on

"First of all, our President is ahead of Obama and probably, I would think that if there's anything to be learned, it should be President Obama learning from President Arroyo. And wouldn't we be proud to say that the Philippines continues to be an 'island of calm' because of the present crunches?" he said, when asked by media what lesson Arroyo could learn from Obama.

He said the President could even be a model or the "proper conduct under pressure."

Arroyo had managed to quell all attempts to oust her from power – via impeachment, “people power" uprising or coup plots – despite her very poor popularity rating.

After Arroyo’s allies in the House of Representatives defeated the fourth impeachment attempt against her late last year, it became clear that Arroyo would be able to finish her term until the end of June 2010.

Ermita said Arroyo and her abilities especially in managing the economy and in insulating the Philippines from the full brunt of the economic global crisis had been recognized. And while the US maybe a big country and have the wherewithal to overcome the crisis "being a leader of a nation, President Arroyo has more experience than President Obama."
I don't want to waste my time refuting all that Ermita had said right now because this is not what the post is about.

It is about one word: Transparency.

US President Barack Obama has effectively dealt with the issue of transparency first raised as he insisted on keeping his Blackberry. The second instance that transparency was dealt with was his memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act.

All throughout her term, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has managed to escape attempts at impeachment by simply keeping quiet and blocking all access to all information that would incriminate her.

The 'Hello Garci' scandal which brought up the issue of her direct involvement in wholesale electoral fraud in the 2004 elections was effectively silenced on the grounds that the actual recording of her cellphone conversation with Comelec Official Virgilio Garciliano came from an illegal wiretap.

Then came the NBN ZTE deal which, for some reason, the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee under Senator Alan Peter Cayetano stopped investigating. So far, Cayetano has yet to produce a committee report on the investigation which would be expected to recommend the filing of charges against officials involved in the deal, including President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo used measures such as Executive Order 464 to prevent her cabinet members and other government officials from disclosing what they may know about the 'Hello Garci' scandal.

Another measure that she deployed was that of Executive Privilege which functioned as a blanket justification by cabinet officials such as former National Economic Development Authority Secretary General Romulo Neri for refusing to disclose details regarding the NBN ZTE Deal.

The 'Hello Garci' controversy, which has also been referred to Gloria Gate (an allusion to the Watergate scandal which similarly centers around tape recordings of US President Richard Nixon), should have produced legislation similar to what was done with the Presidential Records Act.
In 1978, after Watergate, the Presidential Records Act mandated that presidential records would become property of the U.S. government when the president leaves office. They would be transferred to the federal archives, then become available to the public after no more than 12 years.
This law, if I am not mistaken, basically means that all communication by the US President is recorded and makes it illegal for the US President to conceal any communication.

I think, if my understanding is right, having a law like this would have made it easier to obtain evidence against President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

In a press release, Senator Ramon 'Bong' Revilla expressed assurance that he will continue to push for the passage of the Freedom of Access to Information Bill even though he is no longer the chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media.
"Rest assured that I will exert all possible efforts in support of the Freedom of Access to Information Bill. Transparency of government records is vital in exposing scandals and criminal acts of government officials. It will greatly help to eradicate corruption," Revilla said.

He appealed to newly-installed Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media Chairman Allan Peter Cayetano to start the public hearings on the much-awaited Freedom of Access to Information Bill as soon as possible.
One bill filed by Senator Manuel Villar, SB 1578, basically asserts "Article II, Section 28 of the Constitution which provides: “Subject to reasonable conditions prescribed by law. The State adopts and implements a policy of full public disclosure of all its transactions involving public interest.”

Likewise, Article III, Section 7 also states: “The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized. Access to official records, and to documents, and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis far policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.”

However, the law itself imposes a list of restrictions on to what information can or cannot be accessed in Section 4. This basically, still, just gives the President various justifications to conceal information which can be easily twisted to suit whatever purpose.

There is no mention of any requirement being imposed on the President to have all his or her communications recorded or any prohibition against not recording communications.

The Presidential Records Act of the United States, from my understanding, orders that all communications by the Office of the President be recorded and made available according to certain prescribed procedures.

In the case of the Hello Garci scandal, the illegally recorded conversations between the President and Virgilio Garcillano cannot be used as evidence. But supposing that we had a law like the Presidential Records Act and all the President's conversations were being recorded officially, then it would not be necessary to divulge the existence of the illegal wiretap and just subpoena the President's official records (of course, this assumes that other causes can be found to initiate an investigative procedure which would make the subpoena necessary).

In the case of the NBN ZTE probe, if the law filed by Senator Villar were improved to state that if evidence were found that a transaction in government were anomalous, all records of all officials pertaining to that transaction would be divulged.

In relation to this, I hope Senator Panfilo Lacson makes good with a commitment to amend the Bank Secrecy law to make the bank records of all public officials exempt from secrecy.

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