PHILIPPINES: A Country Less Open Than It Seems

For a country touted as a free-wheeling democracy offering a vast array of non-governmental media, the endless debate over how much press and information it needs is profoundly depressing. It has been two and a half decades since the last dictatorship and yet some fundamental media issues remain to be sorted out.

Consider the back-and-forth attitude of Representative Ben Evardone, chairman of the House committee on public information.  Better perhaps to call it the no-information-for-the-public committee: The powerful politician deferred an August 7th vote on an important Freedom of Information bill and is now considered to be the major impediment to passing FOI any time soon.

Power-broker Evardone, however, claimed the delay was necessary to allow for a caucus to take place first: “There are contending issues that need to be resolved first and I believe those issues can be hammered out in a caucus of the leaders and members of the ruling coalition. I think this will expedite the process and will prevent heated, spirited, and highly divisive debates in the committee level and in the plenary.”

Despite his reassuring words and continued insistence that he supports the FOI bill, advocates for the passage of the law have begun an advertising blitz against him. The effort, which includes newspaper and television ads, was organized by The Right to Know, a network of more than 150 organizations from various sectors supporting the bill.

Along with the ads slamming Representative Evardone, The Right to Know has published an editorial in leading newspapers explaining exactly why passage of the FOI bill is so important, pointing out that citizens of the Philippines remain shielded from the ugly reality of how public officials exercise their powers and authority, how they spend public funds, and what contracts and agreements they commit to on their behalf.

It was over 26 years ago that the oppressive government of strongman Ferdinand E. Marcos ended and democracy icon Corazon C. Aquino was ushered into office. That same year a new constitution promised a transparent government and full public disclosure on all things involving taxpayer’s money. Filipinos today are generally a most exuberant people in their exercise of freedom of speech, of the press, and of peaceable assembly. Yet one inalienable freedom that the Constitution guaranteed, Freedom of Information, remains just that: a promise. It is still only a bill, perpetually stuck in the legislative wringer, forever stalled by “concerns” of the Executive and restrictive administrative fiats of the Judiciary.

The right to this information represents protection against government abuse, and the power to make government accountable. We can only hope that the media campaign is successful and that the promise made to the citizens of the Philippines almost 3 decades ago will soon be fulfilled.

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