By: Luis V. Teodoro
THE FAILURE so far of the Philippine Congress to pass a Freedom of Information Act that will make citizen access to government-held information a matter of right isn’t the only indication that its honorable members don’t really mean what they say whenever they declare their support for transparency, freedom of information, and press freedom. The bills some of them have introduced also speak volumes about what they really want, what they think of the press, and by implication, the public they’re supposed to serve.
There are some 15 “Freedom of Information” bills that have been introduced in the House of Representatives. Most of these bills are Freedom of Information bills only in their titles, and would restrict rather than liberalize access to information.
Nueva Ecija Congressman Rodolfo Antonino’s Freedom of Information bill (HB 4252), for example, contains a Right of Reply rider. If passed into law, the bill would compel news media organizations to publish “replies” by anyone who thinks his or her side of an issue, controversy, or whatever has not been given either air time or print space. In the nature of things in this country, the beneficiaries are likely to be mostly politicians like Antonino, politicians being among the most common subjects of the news media, and they being the most sensitive about their media presence. Ordinary citizens are less likely to take whatever advantage such a law would offer.
The Antonino bill does not specify when a media subject can demand satisfaction of his or her right of reply, which means that the right can be invoked even if the subject’s side in an issue has been reported fairly. But even if it did specify under what conditions the right can be availed of, a right of reply law, it has long been pointed out, would not only open the news pages and broadcast news programs to demands for a reply no matter how unreasonable. It would also abridge the right of news media organizations, basic to the exercise of press freedom, to decide what to publish.
Another Congressman, with the unlikely name of Lord Allan Jay Velasco of Marinduque, who is incidentally the son of Supreme Court Justice Presbitero Velasco, whose exalted position has not prevented him from suing journalist Maritess Vitug for libel, has meanwhile filed a bill increasing the fines for libel, among others.
The Velasco bill has been correctly described as regressive. It is also uninformed. Journalists and media advocacy groups have argued for the decriminalization of libel for decades, not because the libel law has been in place for 82 years in the Revised Penal Code, although that does suggest how Jurassic it is, but because it has been used to intimidate and silence journalists in violation of Article III Section 4 of the 1987 Constitution. In response to a petition by Davao broadcaster Alex Adonis, who served two years of a four- year sentence of imprisonment in 2006, and who was released only when pardoned in 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Committee also declared the Philippine libel law excessive and inconsistent with international human rights law, and urged the Philippine government to review it.
The UNHRC gave the Philippine government six months to address the problem. But not only has there been no response to the UNHRC, here is Congressman Velasco filing a bill that would even increase the fines for libel—already excessive in many cases despite the limits the law itself imposes— while ignoring both the UNHRC declaration and the demand by Philippine journalists’ and media advocacy groups to decriminalize it.
Meanwhile, the entire Congress—meaning both the House and the Senate—has passed a Data Privacy Act, the provisions of which, by penalizing government employees who release information to the media with fines and imprisonment, would reduce any FOI bill to a farce. The sponsors of the Act—already for the signature of President Benigno S. Aquino III—have declared that it isn’t directed against the media, but have apparently not realized that penalizing media’s potential sources of information would make getting the information impossible.
Probably not incidentally was the Data Privacy Act certified as urgent by President Aquino. Mr. Aquino’s ambivalence to access to information has been matched by his apparent lack of enthusiasm towards the most recent version of the FOI bill his communications group itself drafted and which journalists’ and media advocacy groups have agreed is acceptable, though far from perfect. It isn’t among the bills he certified as urgent, and neither has there been any apparent attempt on his part to do the necessary political spadework to assure its passage. Among the results of this indifference is the sense among even Mr. Aquino’s allies in the House that he isn’t really all that interested in having the Palace version passed, thus their filing the 15 bills earlier mentioned.
Neither has the Aquino administration acted on the suggested steps, which media groups presented in 2010 to the Department of Justice and the Palace communications group, that the government can take to dismantle the culture of impunity which has allowed and continues to encourage the killing of journalists.
The inevitable conclusion is that neither Congress, specially the House of Representatives, nor Mr. Aquino is committed to the imperative of transparency so urgently needed to curb corruption by making government-held information accessible to both the citizenry as well as the media. Only this explanation suffices when we confront not just the failure to make information accessible and to enhance press freedom as a necessary instrument in assuring transparency, but also the pro-active effort of some of this country’s officials to achieve exactly the opposite. They say they believe in access to information and press freedom. But they don’t.
Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he teaches journalism. He is the deputy director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility. He writes a weekly column for the BusinessWorld.