POSTSCRIPT / March 13, 2014 / Thursday


Opinion Columnist

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FOI law may restrict, not open, flow of info

FOI PROMISE: Do not clap yet for the promised Freedom of Information bill. There is still no certainty that we will have a credible FOI law before the end of this year.

While the Senate has passed an FOI bill and the House takes its sweet time wrapping up its own version, President Noynoy Aquino whose signature is needed on the congressional enactment is still keeping his options open.

The Chief Executive, if we read Palace statements correctly, is hesitant to certify the FOI bill as urgent and to commit himself to sign it into law when submitted to him by the legislature.

Does that mean that in the continued absence of an FOI law mandating free flow of information on public issues, officials will have the discretion to select what documents and data they would allow the public, including the press, to access?

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SMALLER WINDOW: The uncertainty engenders fear among many newsmen that once the FOI law enumerates what information can be accessed, everything that is not listed may be deemed inaccessible or accessible only via a tedious court process.

Most of the pending FOI bills not only list what information should be open to the public but also imposes stringent requirements on top of a maze of procedures (red tape) before a paragraph in a document can be released to the public.

The window has been made even smaller after Malacañang came down with its own restrictive version. Congressmen, who harbor a common fear of public scrutiny, dutifully incorporated the Palace exceptions.

If we do not watch out, an FOI law might achieve the opposite of ensuring the free and full flow of information on public issues.

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SET EXAMPLE: As there is still no FOI law allowing access, the Bureau of internal Revenue simply ignores the timely clamor for the disclosure in one blow of how much top officials have paid in income taxes from 2010 to 1012.

Citizens being taxed almost to penury are entitled to know how much their honorable officials are paying in income taxes. One would be surprised to learn that some officials wallowing in luxury pay less than what some of us wage-earners pay.

We are not asking for a detailed income-tax declaration, but only for one number — the tax amount paid.

That information should be readily available in the case of the President, the Vice President, justices of the Supreme Court, senators, congressmen — and BIR Commissioner Kim Henares herself.

The BIR should also publish the taxes paid by Cabinet secretaries and undersecretaries, bureau directors and their equivalent, generals and their equivalent in the AFP services and the police, the chairmen and presidents of government-controlled corporations.

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WHAT ABOUT P-NOY?: In the same spirit of transparency, the Commission on Audit should publish the audit report on how President Aquino used his pork barrel during the nine years he was a congressman and three years a senator.

If he did it right, his propagandists should shout it from the rooftops. Why are they so quiet about it?

Why are opposition politicians the favorite targets of questioning about their pork barrel use and being dragged around for public flogging?

But do not bet on the FOI law opening up more COA reports. Under the bill, access is NOT allowed when the information consists of drafts of orders, resolutions, decisions, memoranda or audit reports by any executive, administrative, regulatory, constitutional, judicial or quasi-judicial body.

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EXCEPTIONS: Actually the usual FOI bill establishes a legal presumption in favor of access. But it is expressed in the negative — that no request for information shall be denied except when (partial list) the information:

• Is authorized to be kept secret under guidelines set by an Executive Order, provided that the information relates to national security or defense; or pertains to foreign relations when its revelation shall weaken the negotiating position of the government or jeopardize diplomatic relations.

• Consists of records of minutes, advice given or opinions expressed during decision-making or policy formulation, invoked by the Chief Executive to be privileged.

• Is obtained by either chamber Congress, or any committee thereof, in executive session.

• Pertains to defense, law enforcement and border control, when disclosure may compromise or interfere with any military or law enforcement operation, or lead to the disclosure of the identity of a confidential source, or endanger the life or physical safety of an individual, or deprive a person of his right to a fair trial.

• Pertains to personal circumstances of a person and its disclosure would be an unwarranted invasion of his or her privacy, unless it forms part of a public record, or the person is or was an official of a government agency.

• Pertains to trade secrets and commercial or financial information from a natural or juridical person obtained in confidence or covered by privileged communication, when its revelation would prejudice his/its interests in trade, industrial, financial or commercial competition.

• Is classified as privileged communication in legal proceedings by law or by the Rules of Court.

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CLARK CUP: A few playing slots are still available in the Clark Golf Cup set to tee-off at 7:30 a.m. on March 21 at the Mimosa Golf & Country Club in the Clark Freeport, Pampanga. The event is organized by the Capampangan in Media Inc. (CAMI) in cooperation with the Clark Development Corp. Prizes include an SUV for a hole-in-one, as well as other valuable prizes in the raffle after the game.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 13, 2014)

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