When then-candidate Benigno Aquino III was courting the support of voters in 2010, one of the things he promised was the passage of a freedom of information law that would compel government officials to make information available to the public.
FOI has been on a long and frustrating journey. Its first version was filed in 1987. Over the years and across various congresses, the bill has been filed numerous times. Advocacy groups have been organized. On various occasions, the bill passed one house of Congress—but failed in the other house.
Lawmakers claim they recognize the merits of making information accessible to the public but have been stalled by the details of implementing such a law. It was desirable in principle but the fine print occasioned debates and disagreement.
This was the same excuse that Mr. Aquino, who in the past six years has shown us he could get Congress to do his bidding, gave when the House of Representatives failed to pass its version of FOI even after the Senate had passed its own.
The failure to pass an FOI law under an administration that claimed to tread the straight and narrow path exasperated transparency advocates. To be sure, the Aquino administration attempted to compensate for this inability. It has opened up to participation by civil society organizations and mandated local government units to publish their budgets online.
These efforts, however, appear half-baked. LGUs tend to dump all their data, not necessarily to enlighten their constituents but to comply with the reporting requirements. The information, while published online, are not uniform in format. Many are unintelligible or do not make sense at all.
Needless to say, the agencies are likely not able to respond to constituents’ further questions and requests for further documents.
Now comes the apparent winner of Monday’s presidential election, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, saying that one of his first acts as chief executive would be to issue an order mandating access to information, at least in the Executive branch of government.
The other branches—the Legislature and the Judiciary—are not his territory, he was quick to add.
We welcome this pronouncement even as we remain cautious against getting our hopes up. If it serves any purpose, an executive order establishing freedom of information will send the right signal to the government in general. If an environment of genuine openness is created, other branches of government will soon follow suit.
Mayor Duterte is known for making bold, grand promises. We will be vigilant that freedom of information is one he is bent on keeping.