DAVAO CITY—Twenty-three years after the ratification of the Philippine Constitution that ensured the public’s right to know, the hunt for information in the country remains a deadly game, the former chair of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said.
“Our right to information is still in limbo,” said Inday Espina-Varona, the editor-in-chief of the Philippine Graphic magazine and former NUJP chair. “We’ve become the world’s most murderous place for journalists, with over 100 journalists killed under Arroyo’s watch,” she said. “The dominant clans consider government fund as their own, they can dip into it when they needed funds to build stately mansions or to finance their private armies,” said Varona, who spoke to the crowd of journalists and students gathered here on the World Press Freedom day.
She said the failure of the 14th Congress under House Speaker Prospero Nograles to ratify the consolidated Freedom of Information Bill would bring back the fight for access to information back to zero.
The consolidated bill would penalize public officials who refused to release important public document within the prescribed period by the media and other sectors of the public.
Although the Philippine Constitution, under Section 7 of Article 3 provides for public access to official records and transactions; and Section 28 of Article 2 provides for the adoption by the state of the policy of full public disclosure of all records pertaining to public interest, the lack of enabling laws that penalize violators have made it easy for government officials to ignore the repeated request for critical documents by the public.
“It was not ratified for reasons of lack of forum,” Varona said, referring to the consolidated Freedom of Information Bill. “But knowing how Congressmen are, they may not be in the session but they might just be lounging around in their respective offices or at the canteen. If Nograles only wanted it, it would have only take 30 seconds to two minutes to finally ratify it into law.”
She said the Arroyo administration has been very “zealous” in blocking the public’s right to know. Hounded by questions of legitimacy at the height of the controversial “Hello, Garci” tapes, where a man said to be Comelec Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano was overheard talking to the woman alleged to be the President about the swaying of votes during the 2004 elections, Arroyo had imposed a gag order on Cabinet officials, preventing them to appear in the Senate hearing without the President’s approval.
“Withholding of information only worsens the atmosphere, heighten the public perception that there’s something going on,” she said. “In the case of the murdered (journalist) colleagues, it heightens the perception of a whitewash,” she said.
She said that Congress failure to pass the bill deserves a public outcry because freedom of information is not just for the media but also a basic Constitutional right of the public.
“The right to know is not only for journalists but also for citizens in the country,” she said. “It’s an important tool for gathering public information, not only for the media. Civil society groups use it in their campaign to overthrow unjust policies,” she said, citing how the right to information in other countries exposed injustices in the diamond trade, and hospital error leading to death, and errors in government’s computers.
In the Philippines, several important issues have been left unanswered in the public mind: from the questions about the enabling law that granted the Interior and Local Government Secretary Puno blanket authority after the Martial Law declaration in Maguindanao following the Ampatuan massacre, to the mysterious explosion involving a US FBI agent Michael Meiring in Davo City in the early 1990s at the time when Davao City was rocked by several explosions.
“What’s the use of freedom of speech if you can’t get the important documents that will keep you informed of what’s going on?” Varona asked, saying that the Freedom of Information Bill would have been an enabling agent for Philippine democracy. She quoted Bayan Muna Rep. Teddy Casino saying that FOI is an important conk in public governance, a deterrent and a critical safeguard against corruption. “In turn, it will increase the confidence of investors in the country because it gives the impression that the government is transparent,” she said. She cited, however, that recent findings of a UN study say that corruption takes as much as 30 per cent of the country’s national budget.
“After the May 10 elections, we can try a last ditch attempt to save the FOI Act, by sending petitions, holding protests when legislators convene for the last time,” Varona said. “But if the bill is not ratified in the 14th Congress, we are back again to square one.” (Germelina Lacorte/davaotoday.com)