Access to Information Pushed


Filipino journalists consider access to information as vital in their profession. The right to information is not only a right of journalists but of ordinary citizens, too. In the words of Nepo Malaluan, co-convenor of Access to Information Network (ATIN), “Non-access to public information can lead to, or be used to hide corruption.”

BY RONALYN V. OLEA
Bulatlat
Volume VIII, Number 30, August 31- September 6, 2008

Participants to the Sixth National Congress of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) identified non-access to information as one of the barriers in the exercise of their profession.

Speaking at the NUJP Congress, Nepo Malaluan, member of the board of directors of the Action for Economic Reforms (AER) and co-convenor of the Access to Information Network (ATIN) said that the right to information is a constitutionally guaranteed right.

Malaluan cited Article III, Bill of Rights, Section 7 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution which 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 for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.”

He added that Article II Section 28 states, “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.”

Denials

Malaluan said, “Even if we have a very clear constitutional guarantee, many have denied our right to information.”

He cited the high profile case of the National Broadband Network-ZTE deal. The Supreme Court ruling that Romulo Neri, former NEDA chairman, could invoke executive privilege and that he could not be compelled to answer three questions during the Senate inquiry on the controversial project is an example of a denial of the right to access to information, Malaluan said.

Malaluan also said that the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) has been repeatedly denied access to documents pertaining to official development assistance (ODA) projects. “The DOF [Department of Finance] continues to deny these even if these clearly involve tax money.”

Malaluan said, “Non- access can lead to, or be used to hide, corruption.”

He said that there is no speedy, uniform procedure to access information. “Agencies will reply to you in different ways.”

The coverage of guarantee, Malaluan said, is not well defined. The task of defining the limits to the right to information has been given to Congress, said Malaluan.

Leadership issue

Malaluan maintained that access to information is a leadership issue.

“If you have a government that is open, you won’t be needing legislation, or a constitutional guarantee,” said Malaluan.

He added that the government must adopt a policy of openness and transparency. “The problem is when we have a government that tends toward secrecy,” he said.

Bills

Malaluan said that pertaining to the 14th Congress, “We stand a very good chance of passing a law [to access information.]”

The Lower House passed House Bill 3732, known as the Freedom of Information Act of 2008, on its third reading, May 12.

Maluluan said that Congressmen Erin Tañada, Satur Ocampo and Joel Villanueva, among others strongly supported the bill.

The bill includes provisions that will penalize failure to disclose information within a given period. Penalties range from damages, suspension and imprisonment.

However, the bill also enumerates exceptions.

Malaluan said that even only on the matter of procedures and penalties, the bill is progressive.

“What is left now is to secure a counterpart bill in the Senate,” said Malaluan. He added that Sen. Ramon ‘ Bong Revilla Jr., chair of the Committee on Public Information and Mass Media vowed to take up the bills on access to information.

Assertion

Malaluan cautioned that a law would not answer all our problems on access to information.

“The practice will require vigilance.” What is most important, he said, is the people’s assertion of the right to access information. Bulatlat

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