News / Asia

Filipinos Seek Stronger Freedom of Information Guarantee

FILE: Protesters wear black plastic bags to symbolize injustice during a rally marking World Press Freedom Day, in Manila, Philippines.
FILE: Protesters wear black plastic bags to symbolize injustice during a rally marking World Press Freedom Day, in Manila, Philippines.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III campaigned for office in 2010 on the need for more freedom of information, and last week he assured the public he'd support such legislation before his term ends in 2016.  

But advocates, who’ve sought passage of more clearly defined information rights for almost three decades, aren’t leaving this to chance.

A coalition of press associations and civil society and business groups recently launched a signature drive to show support for the legislation, which the Philippine Congress has considered for more than two years.

Advocates see it as a means of strengthening democracy, said Nepomuceno Malaluan, co-director of the Institute for Freedom of Information in Manila.

He helped organize the Right to Know Right Now Coalition.

While the Philippines’ constitution already guarantees its citizens the right to information, the provision is vague and unevenly enforced, he said.

It lacks “details with respect to the scope … the definite procedure to access information and also the sanctions in case the right is violated,” he said. "Sometimes you get very open agencies. Sometimes you get very closed agencies. Sometimes [responses are] based on the kind of information you are requesting.”

The country’s Supreme Court currently determines scope on a case-by-case basis, he said.

Strengthening rights

The pending legislation would strengthen the constitutional guarantee, Malaluan said. Among other things, it would categorize information that should be shared automatically, create an official process for information requests, and outline sanctions for government agencies that don't comply.

Malaluan said the Philippine Senate has completed its version of FOIA legislation and awaits a House version. He hopes they’ll advance to be reconciled, with legislation sent on to Aquino.

"We believe that overall this has gone through a very long balancing process between competing interests and it has come out as a very reasonable, progressive bill,” Malaluan said, adding the Senate and House versions “are not very far apart."

Opponents argue the bill is unnecessary because the administration of President Benigno Aquino III, who campaigned on a platform of greater government transparency, already has taken steps to advance openness and fight corruption. They say new legislation could jeopardize national security or individuals by making personal information more readily accessible to thieves or irresponsible media.

Malaluan dismisses those arguments, saying he suspects some politicians fear more effective legislation might erode their base of power.

Model legislation

At least 80 countries have national laws recognizing the right to public records, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility in Manila reports.

Nineteen Asian countries have such legislation, including Bangladesh, Indonesia, Mongolia and Pakistan.

Pakistan has a federal freedom of information law, passed in 2002, and specific laws for each of its four provinces, said Raza Gardezi of Shehri-Citizens for a Better Environment, a nonprofit based in Karachi.

But Gardezi called the federal law weak. The Pakistani government claimed many exemptions to releasing information, he said, and added “a clause that says the government can classify any information it deems for state security.”

Gardezi said the Pakistani federal law has other shortcomings: no punishment for government agencies that don’t comply, and an appeals process that requires going through a government ombudsman. He said the Pakistani provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa offered stronger models for reforming federal law.

In the Philippines, FOIA advocates say they’re striving for a legislative tool similar to the one in the United States, which implemented its Freedom of Information Act in 1967.

The U.S. law lays out clear standards and guidelines for access to information, making the government accountable to its people, said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit that promotes open governance around the globe.

"By and large, the American law is a strong blueprint and has been a very strong tool for the press and activists alike,” Wonderlich said.

Even with that measure, requests often meet long delays and government agencies frequently claim exceptions to release requirements, Wonderlich said, noting ongoing efforts to improve FOIA.

“For us, the Freedom of Information Act is really fundamental to how we think about democracy and accountability.”

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