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Public’s right to know: from advocacy to practice

Public’s right to know: from advocacy to practice
EGOR VIKHREV-UNSPLASH

Twenty years ago, a number of organizations came together to push for the passage of a Freedom of Information (FOI) law. The proposed legislation seeks to provide operational details to a fuller implementation of the constitutional right to information. Called the Access to Information Network or ATIN, little did the advocates know that the endeavor would take them through a journey starting from the 12th Congress (2001-2004). We are now in the 19th Congress, and the FOI bill remains pending in Congress.

The network has grown and has become the Right to Know, Right Now Coalition, or R2KRN. It is composed of advocates from the academe, labor, youth, civil society organizations, business, and media. We learned the ropes of working for the passage of a bill — submitting position papers, attending hearings and technical working group meetings, partnering with champions in the legislature, conducting mass actions, and doing media and communications work. We even filed a petition for indirect initiative in the 16th Congress.

We came very close to FOI passage in the 14th Congress, with the bill hurdling the bicameral conference committee and the ratification of the bicam report by the Senate. It only needed the counterpart ratification by the House of Representatives to become an enrolled bill for the President’s signature. Looking back, we may have come close to passage in terms of legislative steps only. I think at the core, Congress has not proven itself ready and willing to pass the FOI law, and neither have our Presidents proven themselves ready and willing to include the passage of FOI among their legislative priorities.

Nonetheless, coalition work has given rise to another important FOI challenge — that of FOI practice. FOI practice is about engaging in coordinated, standardized, member-led, and needs-based active exercise of the right to information. “Coordinated” and “standardized” conduct means that R2KRN members use a common template for requesting, monitoring, and documenting requests and outcomes. The “member-led” and “needs-based” approach means that R2KRN members exercise the right to information to enable their primary work, be it doing policy research and advocacy, accessing government services, monitoring performance and accountability, or creating awareness and informing the public on issues of national or local concern.

FOI remains a bond among members, notwithstanding their different areas of work, since they all have the commitment to test, use, and improve formal mechanisms for accessing information to make the constitutional right a living and operational guarantee.

On the government side, a major development in FOI practice happened during the Duterte administration. Perhaps contrary to what anti-Duterte forces would have imagined, one of the earliest issuances of the previous administration was Executive Order (EO) No. 2, s. 2016, titled Operationalizing in the Executive Branch the People’s Constitutional Right to Information and State Policies to Full Public Disclosure and Transparency in the Public Service and Providing Guidelines Therefor. This EO provided uniform procedure and standards for FOI implementation across national executive agencies, which was a major component of the intended legislation on FOI.

EO 2 not only boosted FOI practice on the citizens’ side; it also provided a coordinated FOI practice on the government side. Among the lessons from EO 2 regarding government practice was the importance of having an institutional champion backed by the Office of the President to effectively push implementation and performance. Key programs initiated by the institutional champion, then performed by an FOI office under the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), were the standardization of agency FOI manuals, the introduction of performance incentives for FOI compliance, the development of an electronic platform for requesting and access, and capacity building for government personnel.

FOI practice has revealed new major challenges in the operationalization of the right to know.

One challenge is navigating an emerging conflict between FOI and the Data Privacy Act at the level of implementation. The FOI standards and the data privacy standards present areas of conflict or difficulties both on the side of citizens and the side of government personnel in dealing with requests involving personal information held by government bodies. Through research and dialogue, R2KRN commits to having a workable and reasonable balance between the right to information and the right to privacy.

Another challenge is navigating the communication context in which we live today. In the age of online space and social media, information for collective deliberation of public issues and public policy must compete with all sorts, levels, and motivations of information. In this regard, R2KRN commits to promote wider availability of information backed by careful research as well as expert knowledge and insights.

A recent public forum organized by R2KRN titled “Promises, Performance, and Urgent Agenda: The Philippines Under the BBM Administration” is testament to this commitment. Coalition members (Action for Economic Reforms, Center for Migrant Advocacy, Greenpeace) presented monitoring reports on the present administration’s first 100 days, covering actions and policies on health, migration, climate and the environment, fiscal policy, and public infrastructure. A former Commission on Elections (Comelec) Commissioner and a former Commission on Audit Commissioner also gave presentations on election campaign finance and electoral reforms, with the current Comelec Chairman as reactor. Finally, several experts shared their insights into the economic, social, and political conditions under the present administration.

Such activities that provide knowledge, information, and analysis are all oriented towards spurring advocacy and reforms.

Nepomuceno Malaluan is a trustee of Action for Economic Reforms and was a co-convener of the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition.

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