Duterte shifts government’s access to information policy

Philippine government meets with the FOI advocates (Source: Presidential Communications, Government of the Philippines Facebook Page)

Philippine government meets with the FOI advocates: Turnover of the executive order on freedom of information (Source: Facebook Page of the Presidential Communications, Government of the Philippines)

 

Philippine President Rodrigo Roa Duterte signed an executive order “operationalizing in the executive branch the people’s Constitutional right to information and the state policies of full public disclosure and transparency in the public service” on 24 July 2016.

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) reviewed the text of the executive order (EO) and found that it generally measures up to freedom of information (FOI) standards and principles.

  • The EO recognizes the rights enshrined in the 1987 Philippine Constitution (Article II, Declaration of Principles and State Policies, Section 28 and Article III, Bill of Rights, Section 7) with a “legal presumption in favor of access to information, public records and official records.”
  • However, it is limited by its exclusion of the other branches of government. After the FOI bill languished in the legislative mill for 29 years, Congress should take a cue from the President and pass a law applicable to all bodies that use public funds.
  • The EO acknowledges the government’s existing obligation to make key information accessible such as the regulation on the filing and the availability of statements of assets, liabilities and net worth.
  • Sections on the manual, procedure, fees, and keeping of records support the intention of the order to facilitate access of information. The EO sets the procedure for appeal in case requests are denied.
  • The EO instructs the Department of Justice and the Office of the Solicitor General to put together a list of exceptions. It will be prudent for this administration to limit the reasons for not disclosing information: clearly and narrowly drawn exceptions, types of information that may cause serious harm for example. The executive should also consider a procedure for public interest override.

FOI procedure

A number of media organizations and journalists’ groups gave a broadly positive reaction. The relationship of Duterte and the media started off on the wrong foot. The President has limited his media interaction following a backlash for verbally attacking reporters and statements on the killing of journalists.

The Right to Know. Right Now! Coalition (R2KRN) said in a statement that the executive order (EO) represents a “major progressive leap on transparency.” The coalition added: “experience from our FOI practice shows that one of the biggest hurdles in accessing information is the absence of uniform, speedy and mandated procedure for access, which the EO addresses.”

R2KRN, which have long campaigned for the passage of an FOI Act, is a network of organizations and individuals from various social sectors and civil society groups in the Philippines.

The coalition announced that they “will be refiling an FOI bill in Congress through Indirect Initiative.” Pending FOI-related bills in the 17th Congress are five in the House of Representatives and four in the Senate.

“Despite some reservations, the FOI executive order is a welcome development in the region where the culture of secrecy and corruption has been the norm,” said Edgardo Legaspi, executive director of SEAPA.

“This order pushes forward the regional landscape toward greater transparency and accountability. We hope other countries will take this trend further, including within ASEAN itself as an institution” he added.

Out of 11 countries in the region, only Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam have national FOI laws. The states of Selangor and Penang in Malaysia also have legislation. There is a growing demand in the region for openness and good governance. Myanmar and Cambodia are working to enact their own versions — a trend which recognizes that information is necessary for people to participate in decision-making.

Read: Full text of Executive Order No. 2 Operationalizing the People’s Constitutional Right to Information

FOI-EO