Philippines Official Replies to Criticisms on FOI Legislation

18 February 2013

A Philippines official has replied to allegations that the Aquino administration failed to live up to its commitments by not making sure a freedom of information bill passed, saying that other priorities took precedence.

The government has taken other steps to increase transparency, according to the Feb. 13 letter which was sent to the members of the Steering Committee of the Open Government Partnership. The Philippines is a founding member of the OGP and serves on the Steering Committee.

That position of leadership was all the more reason that the government should have passed a FOI bill, a campaign promise by President Benigno Aquino, according to critics who asked the OGP to “signal” its disappointment.

A leader of the Right to Know. Right Now! Coalition, Nepo Malaluan, Co-Director of the Institute for Freedom of Information, and Toby Mendel, Executive Director of the Centre for Law and Democracy, in a Feb. 8 letter to the OGP expressed the widespread view among FOI supporters in the Philippines that Aquino failed to do enough to encourage legislative action on FOI. They said this was inconsistent with the Philippines’ OGP action plan, which did not promise passage a FOI bill, but called it a “critical” component of the plan. OGP leaders also should be held to a high standard, the critics said. (See report.)

OGP officials later told said that the OGP Governance and Leadership Subcommittee, meeting by teleconference last week and in Jakarta, Indonesia, Feb. 18, likely would discuss the subject. (See previous report.) There have been no public statements from the OGP on the matter. (See related report on the Jakarta meeting.)

OGP officials have said that criticizing governments is not an OGP function. On one other occasion, involving a controversial “secrecy bill”  in South Africa, the OGP Steering Committee members from civil society organizations wrote a joint letter expressing their concerns. (See previous report.)

Philippines Official Replies

Richard E. Moya, Undersecretary/Chief Information Officer of the Department of Budget and Management, reiterated the Aquino government’s commitment to pass a FOI law.

“Indeed, we expressed this acknowledgment in the Philippine OGP Action Plan for 2012. However, we must clarify that the government did not explicitly commit to enact the FoI within the Action Plan’s period,” Moya wrote.

Noting that Congress is an independent branch of government, Moya said the administration cannot make commitment to ensure passage, but that it “took important steps in pushing for the enactment of the FoI, including the official transmission to Congress of an Administration version of the bill.”

Moya then draws attention to the priority given to “the passage of critical socio-economic measures.” He wrote: “These include the Reproductive Health law, which was needed to address serious reversals in maternal health and other Millennium Development Goals; the Sin Tax (excise tax on tobacco and alcohol) Reform measure, to secure urgently needed resources for universal healthcare; and amendments to the Anti-Money Laundering Act (AMLA) to ensure substantial compliance with international anti-money laundering standards.”

The administration “has taken great strides in ensuring that the principle of transparency is not only reflected in policies but is also practiced by institutions in their day-to-day operations,” he added. He wrote: “Many reforms that make information public in an unprecedented way have been undertaken. For instance, for the first time, national agencies have been required by law to disclose their respective agencies’ budgets, procurement plans, awarded contracts, status of budget implementation and other such relevant information. We have likewise instituted the same disclosure policy for local government units.”

He concluded: “Rest assured that our government will continue to work hard towards the enactment of an FoI law within the remaining years of the present Administration. Moreover, recognizing that the Philippines has many well-crafted but poorly-implemented laws, we are committed to work with the FoI advocates in building the foundations for a meaningful access to information.”

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