By: Juan L. Mercado
TO JUMP-START the long-stalled Freedom of Information bill, journalists designated August 15 as “FOI Day”. They “pledged to publish and upload a pooled editorial” to prod a skittish House of Representatives to act. Ma. Ceres Doyo ran the text in her Inquirer column titled: “Push, pass the FOI act now!”
The first-ever “pooled editorial”, in local journalism, skewered “Compartmentalized Justice” of the then decaying “New Society.” All dailies ran it on the same day. Radio stations broadcast the text, along with the new kid on the block then: TV news programs. President Ferdinand Marcos went ballistic.
At the Philippine Press Institute, we rechecked drafts that publishers blue-penciled. We were a wet-behind-the-ears journalist then. Our job included ensuring the pooled editorial clattered out on teletypes. The editorial set a precedent. As greenhorn, the innovation didn’t fully register on us then.
Malacañang phone calls to went to Institute members with less grit than Joaquin “Chino” Roces. When a follow-up pooled editorial was proposed, the now defunct Evening News hastily bailed out. Others waffled. Thus, a second pooled editorial never materialized.
Marcos got his pound of flesh under Proclamation 1081. He jailed Roces and Manila Chronicle publisher Eugenio Lopez. He padlocked the Times, Philippines Free Press, and ironically even papers that buckled. In between, Marcos enticed publishers into his camp.
At an Institute meeting in the old Capitol Publishing compound, Manila Bulletin’s Hans Menzi revealed he’d sign on as Marcos’ senior military aide. There was stunned silence. In the presiding officer’s chair, then UP president Carlos P. Romulo shifted uneasily. Chino Roces twirled his cigar. Philippine News Service’s Romeo Abundo gagged on his coffee.
“If you were publishing laundry lists, I’d have no objections,” the courtly Don Ramon Roces finally said. “But Hans, my friend – you’re publishing a newspaper.”
The rest is now history, including the November 2005 Supreme Court decision that declared 198,052 Manila Bulletin shares were the “ill-gotten wealth of the defendant Marcos spouses.” Singapore’s Supreme Court ruled, this week, $23 million in stashed Marcos assets be returned to Philippine National Bank.
Technology, ownership to cyberspace altered the “pooled editorial”. Sun Star for example, periodically runs a “pooled editorial” in its syndicated network members. Would metropolitan publishers, of varying persuasions and economic interests, agree on a pool? Twitter and Facebook impinge meanwhile on newsrooms. Is this the "pool" an outdated “measure of last resort”?
The medium is not the message, as today’s controversy over an FOI shows. Information ushers in transparency, the anchor of good governance. Section 7 of the Constitution provides for the citizen’s right to public information. State policy seeks full disclosure of transactions involving public interest.
After dawdling for months, President Aquino – who pledged in his campaign to press for an FOI bill – gave the green light for the measure in January. “We acknowledge efforts by reformers in the executive branch, namely Budget Secretary Florencio ‘Butch’ Abad and Information Undersecretary Manuel L. Quezon III, “The Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition” said.
That sense of relief came from being scalded by experience. Pro Macapagal-Arroyo congressmen sabotaged FOI in the 14th Congress’s closing day. Prospero Nograles (Davao) and Pedro Romualdo (Camiguin) led a coalition that killed FOI. It needed merely a few minutes for ratification. But the regime hefted the old dodge of questioning the quorum.
Only 128 House members showed up – seven short of the 135 needed in a House of 268 members. After the “slaughter”, journalists tracked text messages from the House leadership to stay away. Thus, 140 truants strangled FOI.
The day after the Lower House strangled the bill, President Aquino pledged to fast track FOI. Rep. Lorenzo "Erin" Tañada (4th District, Quezon) predicted early approval of a reintroduced measure. That’d make FOI the "very first legacy" of the 15th Congress under the Aquino III administration.
That did not come to pass. The 15th Congress is now meandering to a close. Were those January well-wishes premature? Yes, says the proposed “pooled editorial” draft.
The Right to Know coalition prodded Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone to “transform rhetoric into reality.” The Eastern Samar congressman, who preens of his earlier incarnation as a journalist, heads the House committee on public information. He failed to “harmonize 15 versions of FOI bill in his committee.
After State-of-the-Nation address, Evardone promised he’d put the FOI bill “in the front burner” .Well, SONA 3 has come – and gone. Evardone’s pledge hasn’t been redeemed.
“Executive agencies have become more transparent anyway,” other spokesman insists. “The Department for Budget and Management, under Secretary Florencio ‘Butch’ Abad, uploads unprecedented amounts of public funds, from pork barrel to projects.”
These welcome reforms need to be institutionalized. Benigno Aquino III will not be president forever. The 16th President (It does not have to be Jejomar Binay) can scrap those reforms with the stroke of a pen.
“Media's power is frail. Without the people's support, it can be shut off with the ease of turning a light switch,” Corazon Aquino always warned.