13 September 2011
BENIGNO S. AQUINO III
President of the Philippines
Subject: FOI and the draft Philippine Action Plan for OGP
Dear Mr. President:
We write on behalf of the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition, a network of about 150 organizations and individuals from various social sectors and civil-society groups, which have long been campaigning for the passage of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.
We are informed that on 20 September 2011, you will deliver the keynote address at the Open Government Partnership (OGP) conference in New York, sign an Open Government Declaration, and submit an Action Plan to scale-up your administration’s open government practices.
These are in line with our country’s membership in the eight-country steering committee of the OGP along with the United States, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. Such membership in the steering committee required targeting governments that have a demonstrated commitment to open government evaluated through a point system in the four areas of budget documents transparency, disclosure of asset records of elected and senior public officials, enacting an access to information law, and fostering citizen engagement.
We welcome our country’s membership in the OGP steering committee. To us, it reflects your desire to assume an honored place in the international stage as one of the leading lights of transparency and accountability in the world.
Beyond such aspiration, however, your administration’s commitment to the OGP principles can be measured by the Action Plan that you will submit. It is in this context that we comment on the draft Philippine Government Action Plan prepared by Secretary Florencio B. Abad, in consultation with other Cabinet members. We are informed that today, this draft Philippine Action Plan will be presented to you for your approval.
It is in this context that we wish to provide you with our feedback, as part of our continuing effort to engage your administration on the issue of the people’s right to information.
First, we note that the draft plan focuses on four main areas for the scaling up of open government commitments: the national budget, local governance, procurement, and poverty reduction programs. On the whole, we support the scaling up of open government initiatives by the Philippines in these areas. Our member organizations are striving to be more directly engaged in these areas to this day.
Second, we had conveyed to Secretary Abad our hope that future consultations on the OGP will be substantially widened to surface areas where acute problems of transparency and accountability need scaled-up response. The areas so far concentrated on by the draft action plan are the ones led by members of your cabinet who have shown greater commitment to transparency, where civil society organizations and donor agencies have historically vigorously engaged the Philippine government on, where multi-stakeholder transparency mechanisms have gained traction in, and where certain disclosure practices have been introduced even years ahead of the birth of your administration.
Our core concern, however, is the draft action plan’s lack of firm, credible commitment for the prompt passage of the long-overdue Freedom of Information Act.
The draft action plan commits the following:
“Pushing for Freedom of Information. The government will strive for the passage of a Freedom of Information Act within the current presidency, in consultation with CSOs. Pending this, it will develop and issue an executive-wide policy to improve access to information – including requirements for accurate, timely and understandable summary disclosures by government departments through their websites – within 360 days.”
We do not find comfort in the draft plan’s statement that your government will “strive for the passage of a Freedom of Information Act within the current presidency”. With all due respect, in our view it has been the ambiguous and vague statements coming from your office regarding the passage of the Freedom of Information bill that has been the main reason why it is now languishing in the House of Representatives, and moving at a snail’s pace in the Senate. Despite repeated appeals for your endorsement, and months of work by a Malacañang study group on the FOI bill, we have not seen any appreciable advance in your position.
Neither do we find comfort in the draft’s promise of an executive-wide policy to improve access to information. For one, an executive order will not be able to settle the gaps in the limits of access coverage and exceptions, as this is a legislative matter. For another, its application will be limited to the executive, even as access issues are present as well in the other branches of government and in independent constitutional bodies. It also cannot prescribe sanctions that are penal in nature.
We did consider such executive order to be a good interim measure at the start of your term, under the premise that you would categorically and unambiguously support the immediate passage of the FOI law. But at this point where we seem to be endlessly running after your elusive concerns, we see the said executive-wide policy as only justifying the further delay in the passage of the FOI law.
We humbly submit that it is within your power, in fact, we believe it is your constitutional duty, to provide a true scale-up of open government commitment on access to information. A crucial starting point is for the Action Plan to express full, firm, and explicit commitment to the immediate passage of the FOI law in the present Congress, and within the remaining months of 2011, to present to Congress your proposed amendments that address your concerns on the FOI bill.
It is the presence or absence of such commitment that will determine for us whether we will view the action plan and your OGP activities in New York as facilitating a significant scaling up of transparency mechanisms and practices, or sadly, only legitimizing your transparency comfort zone and your ignoring of the long standing people’s clamor for an FOI law.
Thank you very much.
Very truly yours,
on behalf of Right to Know. Right Now! Coalition:
Atty. Nepomuceno A. Malaluan
Ms. Malou Mangahas
Mr. Vincent Lazatin
Hon. Paquito Ochoa
Hon. Julia Abad
Presidential Chief of Staff
Hon. Edwin Lacierda
Hon. Ramon A. Carandang
Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning
Hon. Herminio Coloma
Presidential Communications Operations Office
Hon. Florencio B. Abad
Secretary, Department of Budget and Management