Friday, November 26, 2010

President Noynoy Aquino and the Freedom of Information Bill

Zambales Representative Ma. Milagros Magsaysay urged the President to "walk the talk" and certify the FOI bill urgent.
"I think he should walk his talk on FOI .He can't be loudly calling for its passage one moment and then give it the cold shoulder next," she said.
"If he won't certify FOI bill as urgent then it would appear that all his huffing-and-puffing for the said measure early this year was choreographed drama meant to reap publicity during the campaign period," Magsaysay said.
The latest on the much stalled and much talked about Freedom of Information bill is that President Aquino wants the bill to be thoroughly reviewed before he certifies it as urgent.

After reading House Bill 53, filed by Deputy Speaker and Quezon Representative Lorenzo Tanada III, I noticed that Section 15 of his bill does not include a provision where elected officials and heads of agencies aren't required to keep records of conversations whether in person or over the phone.

The Freedom of Information law, if we are to have one, will only be as strong as what elected officials and heads of agencies are required to record.

One of the biggest reasons that the Freedom of Information bill is interesting to me is the "Hello Garci" tapes which somewhat suggested that former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo talked with then Election Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano at the height of the 2004 elections.  Much of the material recorded and publicized was claimed to have suggested that Macapagal Arroyo rigged the results of the 2004 elections with the help of Garcillano and other officers of the Comelec.

Attempts to hold Macapagal Arroyo and Garcillano accountable for their actions were stopped dead in its tracks because the record of their conversations were gained through an illegal tapping of cellular phone lines.

Perhaps, if the President's conversations over the phone were then made subject to recording and made accessible through a Freedom of Information Act (at that time), perhaps this would have resulted in the ouster of Macapagal Arroyo.

In any case, today, perhaps President Aquino is mulling and dragging his feet over certifying the Freedom of Information bill as urgent legislation because his legal advisers haven't gotten around to putting enough loopholes in the proposed law which would allow him enough cover should his administration be compromised with some scandal or other.

Right now, the bill sponsored by Congressman Tanada already describes quite specifically what information may be obtained and what information can be withheld.

Under Section 7 of the Tanada Freedom of information Bill, it states exceptions under which information may be denied:
(a) The information is specifically authorized to be kept secret under guidelines established by an executive order, and in fact properly classified pursuant thereto: Provided, That:
1) The information directly relates to national defnese and its revelation will cause grave damage to the internal and external defnese of the State; or
2) The information requested pertains to the foreign affairs of the Republic of the Philippines when its revelation unduly weaken the negotiating position of the government in an ongoing bilateral or multilateral negotiation or seriously jeopardize the diplomatic relations of the Philippines with one or more states with which it intends to keep friendly relations;
Provided further, That the executive order shall specify the reasonable period by which the information shall be automatically declassified or subject to mandatory declassification review, and that any reasonable doubt as to classification and declassification shall be settled in favor of the right to information;
(b) The information requested pertains to internal and external defense and law enforcement, when the revelation thereof would render a legitimate military or law enforcement operation ineffective, unduly compromise the prevention, detection or suppression of a criminal activity, or endanger the life or physical safety of confidential or protected sources or witnesses, law enforcement and military personnel or their immediate families.  Information relating to the details of the administration, budget and expenditure, and management of the defnese and law enforcement agencies shall always be accessible to the public;
The thing is, there are a number of ways in which these provisions can be used to hide information at a crucial time.

(To be continued...)

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