By: Luis V. Teodoro
IN SOME countries including the Philippines, officials apparently fear freedom of information (FOI) because they think it an instrument their rivals and competitors as well as the mass media can use to harass them. There are also speculations that once a Freedom of Information Act is passed, government agencies will be flooded with requests for information, to address which will paralyze government operations.
Neither is validated by practice. The reality is that in a freedom of information regime, a political rival who uses information against a politician in power or a government functionary would not only be subject to public scrutiny and exposure him/herself, the truth or falsehood of the information s/he releases can also be verified by any citizen including journalists.
The accessibility of information on government matters and functionaries and on public entities would also compel the media to be more circumspect in publishing unverified information. In a freedom of information regime, they would be as subject to the same exposure as those they would be exposing. The information they publish would also be easily verifiable. A public information regime can make the gossip and speculation that thrives in a regime of secrecy pointless because of the availability of verifiable information.
It has not received the emphasis it needs, but public access to information is also a means through which honest and competent officials as well as best corporate practice can be recognized by the public in the same manner that bad practice, corruption and incompetence are exposed, and the guilty disciplined or prevented from further undermining efficient and democratic governance, retarding development, and harming the public interest.
Access to information through an authentic Freedom of Information Act by itself also enhances and strengthens democracy, since, as part of freedom of expression, the right to seek information also includes disseminating it. The capacity to seek and disseminate information enhances the capacity of citizens to act in their and society’s behalf and is in that sense empowering.
The experience of other countries, meanwhile, suggests that the flood of requests for government-held information that some officials fear will paralyze government operations is not likely to happen.
Passage of Thailand’s FOI version, known as the Official Information Act, which has been in place since 1997, has not opened the floodgates for requests for information. The aim of the Thai Official Information Act is to guarantee the right of individuals to access government information. The Act makes all official data and information available to the public. Only a few categories of information are exempt from disclosure.
Although problems in implementation remain, among them some agencies’ ignorance of the provisions of the Act and their responsibilities under its mandate, over the last 15 years, the Act has developed a culture of disclosure in Thai governance and politics, reversing what has been described as a culture of concealment in which disclosure was the exception rather than the rule.
The Philippines was described some 10 years ago as the country in Southeast Asia where information was most accessible. However, a culture of concealment has taken root in the country over the years, coinciding with the nearly ten-year watch of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, when a number of administration initiatives made access to information problematic. It is those 10 years that have made an authentic FOI necessary, to reverse, as in Thailand, the culture of concealment and to put in place a culture of disclosure.
And yet unjustified fears—that government operations will be hampered, that an FOI will be used for harassment, interfere with policy discussions and disclose state secrets, among others—are apparently behind the reluctance of the Aquino administration to push for an FOI, and evident in the attempts of some members of the House of Representatives to put together an FOI bill with a Right of Reply rider. The implication is that what drives this fear is exactly the culture of secrecy that has become normal in Philippine governance. A legacy of the Arroyo administration, that culture has to be dismantled, through, among other measures, an authentic FOI act. (http://www.cmfr-phil.org/inmediasres/fear-of-foi/)
(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.)