Justice Secretary Leila de Lima yesterday defended Malacañang’s continuing stance insisting on what some proponents of the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill described as a “watered-down” version before visiting parlia-mentarians from 80 different countries attending the global conference against corruption.
De Lima underscored Malacañang’s position in highlighting provisions concerning matters of executive privilege and national security on the occasion of an international gathering of some 500 foreign lawmakers attending a four-day conference against corruption in government being hosted by the country.
This, even as she herself noted what could be considered a jurisprudence in interpreting the constitutional right to information, due to the absence of a specific FoI statute in the Philippines that could provide definitive guidelines in the enforcement of such right, the Supreme Court decision emphasizing that the best avenue for the noble undertaking of demanding an accounting of an entrusted power “is not in the political branches of government.”
“The governance philosophy of President Aquino of tuwid na daan or the ‘straight path’ has harvested gains in our relentless anti-corruption campaign. But it is noted that certain conditions have to be engendered in order for the right to information to be meaningfully practiced,” she told participants in the 5th conference of the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption (GOPAC) at the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC).
“The willingness and the good faith of this government to make an authentic commitment to transparency as an important element in democratic, efficient and honest governance will not be enough unless there is a very well-crafted law that not only encourages requests for information by the public but also affords speedy processing of the same,” the Justice chief said.
The SC decision was in relation to the case filed against the so-called “gag order” issued by then President Gloria Arroyo, the Executive Order 464, which proved a major stumbling block in pursuing congressional inquiries as members of the Executive were disallowed to appear before the Senate.
De Lima herself, in her speech, noted that such case by far was one of the strongest cases upholding the constitutional right to information in the wake of public anger against the Arroyo gag order.
“In a clear victory for human rights advocates, the court in the said case declared that the ‘extraordinary character of the exemptions’ indicates that the ‘presumption inclines heavily against executive secrecy and in favor of disclosure.’”
“In upholding the right of the Executive to invoke privilege communication in a Senate inquiry, the SC concluded, thus: The recent clamor for a ‘search and truth’ by the general public, the religious community and the academe is an indication of a concerned citizenry, a nation that demands an accounting of an entrusted power. However, the best avenue for this noble undertaking is not in the political branches of government,” she said.
It is common knowledge in the country that a number of stakeholders, besides media entities, have been lobbying strongly for the passage of the bill which has been pending before Congress for more than a decade now, yet Malacañang still would not certify the bill as urgent.
Recent developments showed some lawmakers withdrawing co-authorship of the bill at the House of Representatives due to some revisions introduced by Palace which were viewed by them as “restrictive.”
But Malacañang officials maintained that its version sticks to the spirit of the proposed law on matters of executive privilege and national security, to ensure that the government will be able to run its affairs smoothly even in the face of calls or requests for information and transparency.
“In my humble opinion, I assess that the Philippine society is now poised to divest itself of the shackles of secrecy and complacency. We have taken the responsibility of slowly and steadily strengthening our democratic institutions. As a people, we are starting to be inveigled by the promise of a well-informed citizenry. Philippine media (are) one of the freest in the world. And, we have a very vibrant civil society, actively engaging in various discourses and advocacies. After many years of legislative lobbying, the opportunity to create a Freedom of Information Act is within our reach. The path has been laid out before us. We need only now to simply take it,” De Lima said.
“With that thought, I close with an ancient Buddhist expression that I find enlightening: If we are facing in the right direction, all we have to do is to keep on walking,” she added.
Meanwhile, Bayan Muna party-list Rep. and anti-corruption advocate Teodoro Casiño has opted not to attend the international parliamentarian’s conference against corruption which opened yesterday “because with Congress’ failure to pass the FoI bill, I will just feel like a hypocrite in that place.”
“It’s ironic for the President to deliver the keynote speech in the 5th Global Organizations of Parliamentarians Against Corruption, when it was his administration that has killed the FoI bill. It is also ironic that the Senate is hosting the conference when it is embroiled in a corruption scandal. I don’t want to be part of that charade,” he stressed.
“I am disgusted at the way the FoI bill has been killed by the Presidents men in Congress. Rep. Ben Evardone’s throwing in the towel is just the last nail on the coffin that was designed and built by the President himself, whose refusal to certify the bill or even include it in his priority measures spelled its doom,” he said.
He noted that Malacañang’s FoI version is so limited “that transparency and accountability is restricted, illustrated by the many exemptions that cover corrupt practices, human rights violations and policy making.”