From ABS-CBN News / Newsbreak
by Purple S. Romero
Sunday, 31 August 2008
The passage of the freedom of information act, which can force government agencies to disclose state “secrets,” has hit a snag in the Senate.
The Senate Committee on Public Information, chaired by Sen. Ramon ‘Bong’ Revilla, has yet to conduct a hearing on House Bill 3732 or the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) after the House of Representatives approved the bill last May.
Rep. Lorenzo ‘Erin’ Tañada III, lead author of HB 3732, said in a public forum on the FOI held Friday at the Ateneo de Manila University that the access to information bill is in danger of being derailed in favor of “priority” bills such as the one on whistleblowers’ protection.
According to a source who requested anonymity, the Senate Committee on Public Information has cancelled three hearings on the FOI. These hearings were cancelled a day before or on the day of the hearing itself. The reason: the committee has not done any research on the bill.
After 20 years
HB 3732 is considered a watershed piece of legislation since there is yet no enabling law for citizens’ rights on access to information 20 years after the 1987 Constitution was enacted, Tañada said.
“In the decision on Chavez vs. NHA, the Supreme Court wrote that it is unfortunate that after almost 20 years after the 1897 Constitution was made, there is no enabling law that provides mechanism for the compulsory disclosure of information,” he explained.
The 1987 Constitution accords Filipinos the right to access information crucial to public welfare and interest.
The “demand” side of this right, Tañada explained, is laid out in Article III, Sec.7 of the Constitution. This provision states that the public should have “access to official records, and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development”, subject to limitations as may be provided by law.
On the other hand, the “supply” part of the public’s right to information is delineated in Article II Sec. 28. This provision says that “subject to reasonable conditions prescribed by law, the State adopts and implements a policy of full public disclosure of all its transactions involving public interest.”
The constitutional right to access of information should be “self-executing,” Tañada said. However, it is often violated due to the following constraints:
* There is no uniform procedure detailing the disclosure of information;
* Lack of specification of the coverage of guarantee, particularly the general rule on information that may exempted;
* There is no effective basis for imposing administrative or penal sanctions.
Tañada said that the FOI passed by the lower house addresses these concerns. It provides general procedural mechanisms for requesting and providing information, and it also narrows the kind of records that may be kept hidden from the public eye.
Aside from this, HB 3732 criminally and administratively sanctions both public officials and private individuals who would bar access to documents, data, contracts and other government records pertinent to public interest.
Sec. 15 of FOI stipulates that public officers and private persons who would strike down requests for information would face imprisonment of a minimum of six months to a maximum of one year.
If the denial of information is overturned by the Office of the Ombudsman, authorities who failed to disclose the requested documents would be made to pay P1,000 each day, starting from notice of denial until the request is finally complied with.
The FOI mandates government agencies to comply with requests for information within 10 calendar days. Tañada said that the said time frame is more stringent than the 15-day period set in RA 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Employees.
Sec.5 of RA 6713 requires government bodies to reply to requests for information within 15 working days upon receipt of a request.
However, Tañada explained that this provision is often misconstrued as the rule for compliance. “Government authorities often look to Sec.5 of RA 6713 as the way of addressing requests for information,” he said.
Limiting executive privilege
According to Vincent Lazatin, executive director of the Transparency and Accountability Network, a member-group of the Access to Information Network which drafted the framework for the FOI, HB 3732 was crafted following the issuance of Executive Order (EO) 464.
President Arroyo signed EO 464 at the height of the Senate investigation on Northrail and the “Hello Garci” scandal, which exposed the president’s alleged cheating in the 2004 elections.
Lazatin said EO 464 imposed a gag order on government officials as it required department heads to seek permission first from the president before they appear in Senate hearings.
It also gave teeth to executive privilege, which former Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Romulo Neri invoked during the Senate probe on the botched $329 million-National Broadband Network (NBN) deal between the government and Chinese telecommunications firm, ZTE Corp.
Sec.8 of HB 3732 aims to weaken executive privilege by mandating that all information regarding executive action should be made available to both houses of the Congress.
HB 3732 has safeguards against the disclosure of information considered pivotal for internal security and foreign relations. It exempts the following kinds of information from public disclosure:
* when it could create a clear and present danger of war;
* when the information pertains to foreign affairs and when its revelation would unduly weaken the negotiating position of the government in bilateral or multilateral negotiations;
* when the information could compromise internal and external defense and law enforcement, among others.
But HB 3732 states that even the above exempted information should be shared at all times to the legislative department.
SB 1578 vs. HB 3732
Meanwhile, Akbayan Rep. Rissa Hontiveros-Baraquel pointed out that Senate bill 1578, the Senate version of HB 3732, reflects the objectives of the FOI, but it has procedural ambiguities and provides limited remedies.
SB 1578, authored by Senate President Manuel Villar, does not adopt the policy of mandatory disclosure as stipulated in Article II, Sec. 28.
She added that in the Senate version, the “procedure is not as clear” as the House bill on when government should release requested information.
“SB 1578 states that requests on information should be complied with within five working days but could be extended to 15 days, as opposed to HB 3732’s 10 calendar days,” she said.
People also only have the Supreme Court to go to when their request for information is unduly denied as stipulated in SB 1578. On the other hand, Hontiveros said that HB 3732 gives citizens the option to seek redress at the Office of the Ombudsman.
SB 1578, however, seeks for the declassification of documents. Documents could be reviewed for declassification after five years. After 20 years, however, any document is already considered declassified without the need for a review unless the president declares its continued classified status.
The Senate version of FOI also waives and reduces fees for the reproduction of requested documents, while HB 3732 obliges the party who made the request to answer reproduction costs.
Hontiveros said that they are still lobbying for HB 3732 to be the template for the consolidated bill on FOI.
Tañada said that they are pushing for the passage of the FOI before 2010. He urged for the quick passage of this bill, citing a UN study which said that corruption in the country has already eaten away 13 percent or $1.8 billion of the national budget.
In case the FOI is not passed before 2010, he said the bill would again have to go through the whole approval process in the Lower House.
With the stalled hearings on FOI in the Senate, Tañada said the FOI may eventually fall victim to stonewalling, unless there is strong public clamor for its expeditious passage.
We tried to get the side of Senate committee on public information chair Revilla on this allegation, but our calls and text messages were not answered by his chief-of-staff.
We were able to reach Senator Richard Gordon, a member of the Senate committee on public information. He told us however, that he has not seen a copy of HB 3732 and was not aware of any committee meetings held on the said bill.
If HB 3732 becomes a law, however, Hontiveros said that a possible test case for it is the P90 million renovation of the Batasan Pambansa building, home of the House of Representatives. She said a student has asked for public disclosure of the documents on the renovation.
Hontiveros said Congress should disclose how the House of Representatives spent the P90 million. After this, architects and interior designers could come up with their own cost estimates and then compare the figures with the expenses of the Lower House.
August 29, 2008
In the past months, TEAM RP, a youth-led reform-oriented group, has worked closely with the Access to Information Network (ATIN) and the Transparency and Accountability Network (TAN) in ensuring the passage of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill. The bill (HB3732) passed the Lower House’s third reading last May 12, 2008 and is still pending in the Senate.
“It’s unfortunate that the Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media has canceled two previously scheduled hearings,” Atty. Eirene Aguila, TEAM RP Chair said. “The recent controversies we faced were, in one way or another, caused by lack of transparency and access to information, so all the more should the Senate prioritize this bill. This would help prevent similar issues from happening again.”
The Senate committee is headed by Senator Ramon Revilla, Jr. Similar bills on Freedom of Information were already filed in the Senate since it opened its first regular session after the 2007 mid-term elections.
“The right of the people to be informed should no longer be left to the sheer discretion of the Court, the inertia of the lawmakers and the caprices of our public officials,” Atty. Aguila added. She said that the absence of FOI makes it difficult even for government agencies to access documents from other government agencies.
The FOI campaign has since been TEAM RP’s main policy advocacy. Last March 10, 2008, TEAM RP launched an online signature campaign, dubbed “Sa Totoo Tayo”, to petition Congress to urgently pass the Freedom of Information Law to provide explicit procedures in allowing public access to government documents.
Last March 14, TEAM RP held a “truth caravan” in the University Belt area, Intramuros and some schools in Quezon City in line with the campaign. It has collected 1000 online and 1500 offline signatures from the “truth caravan”. TEAM RP continued to visit schools, held education sessions in communities and gathered signatures for the petition until May this year.
Atty. Aguila also pointed out that, in line with TEAM RP’s cornerstone principles of Truth, Accountability and Reform, the group has been consistent in criticizing any effort to conceal public information, especially of anomalous deals. TEAM RP has been critical of Malacañang’s policy on Executive Privilege.
“Malacañang’s policy gives a blanket license with ambiguous parameters to officials to evade the reach of both the oversight and legislative powers of the Senate,” Atty. Eirene Aguila said. “If the Palace is serious on taking the role as the main crusader against graft and corruption, it should be at the forefront of enacting transparency measures, not finding ways to hide from public scrutiny.”
TEAM RP was particularly vocal that the Supreme Court decision on Executive Privilege last April left the people with more suspicion and growing unrest than certainty on the issue. TEAM RP said that, in effect, the SC decision has left the entire nation to continue doubting the Arroyo government.
But Atty. Aguila reiterated that the decision highlighted some fundamental aspects of governance that should be seriously considered by both the executive and legislative branches. “We would not be in this dilemma had our executive officials provided for effective transparency measures and espoused a policy of full and authentic public disclosure and also had our legislators focused their efforts in aid of legislation, we would have resulted in laws supporting the people’s right to know, which makes the FOI bill all the more an urgent matter” she said.
“What You Don’t Know Is Hurting You”, a public forum on the Freedom to Information Bill, has been organized by TEAM RP together with The Assembly, Ateneo’s Political Science Organization, and Young Public Servants, the youth-arm of the International Center for Innovation, Transformation and Excellence in Governance (INCITEGov). The forum is part of the “Sa Totoo Tayo” campaign. For more information visit satotootayo.blogspot.com.
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CSP Building, Social Development Complex, Ateneo de Manila University, Quezon City
Contact Numbers: 426-5657 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: teamrp.multiply.com
Learn more about the Freedom of Information Bill in What You Don't Know Is Hurting You, a public forum featuring the following distinguished speakers:
Rep. Lorenzo Tanada, author of the Freedom of Information Bill passed in Congress
Atty. Nepomuceno Malaluan, co-convenor of ATIN (Acces to Information Network)
Mayor Jesse Robredo, mayor of Naga City
Mr. Vincent Lazatin, executive director of TAN (Transparency and Accountability Network)
4:00 pm to 7:00 pm
Friday August 29, 2008
Manuel V. Pangilinan (MVP) Roofdeck
Ateneo De Manila University
Brought to you by:
The Assembly - The Political Science Organization of the Ateneo
Young Public Servants
Email Rafaela David (paeng_160 at yahoo dot com) or Niña Terol (nina.terol at gmail dot com) for more information
Michael “Mike” Francis Acebedo Lopez
Commissioner-at-Large, National Youth Commission
It was only a month after my college graduation as an Advertising major from Cebu’s University of San Carlos when I made a life-changing decision to apply for a government position where I felt I could make some difference as a young Filipino. Armed with unwavering idealism, support from fellow leaders from the youth, the Cebu government, the Church, and the private sector—along with experience as an active student leader and volunteer—I applied as Commissioner-at-Large of the National Youth Commission (NYC). Having been a volunteer of the NYC for several years, I was encouraged to see so many young people who had a passion for the future and thought that a job at the NYC would put to good use all the energy and ideas that come with my youth.
I was told that it was going to be difficult applying for a position that was highly coveted especially by sons and daughters of politicians. But I knew that I was up for the challenge; even before I was sure to receive my appointment, I was already so convinced by a personal belief that it isn’t always true that when one is in government, one has no choice but to be corrupt. Wanting to prove this has consumed me and has framed my actions and decisions ever since.
Today, two years after being appointed as Commissioner of the NYC by President Macapagal-Arroyo, I have to admit that while I am pleased by my personal and professional accomplishments, there have been factors and events, many beyond my control that are difficult to reconcile with what I believe in. The scandals that have rocked this government are shocking, to say the least, and it isn’t easy to hold your head up high as a part of that government. Indeed, these are difficult times to be in government. (Note that the operative word is difficult—not impossible.)
While other people rally in the streets asking for the President to step down, other government agencies such as the National Youth Commission suffer from having leaderships that also warrant our attention and corrective action. Those who think that replacing the President will answer all our problems are missing the point. After all, it’s not just the presidency that makes up this government or any other government—it’s every department, appointee, local government unit, legislator, and employee.
Look at the young leaders, too
After two years in the Commission, I have become so frustrated, desperate. The National Youth Commission, an agency under the Office of the President, is the sole national policy-making and coordinating body on youth affairs. It is a relatively small national government agency, but its potential is great and its role critical. In my opinion, the answer to the deeply-rooted, multi-faceted problems our country is facing is investing in long-term solutions, and not just focusing our energies on a President who would be stepping down in 24 months. This can be done through investing in human capital with the most potential to create lasting change—this means nurturing the right values in our youth and children. The good economist that we have for a President would know how critical it is for our government to invest in agriculture to ensure food security, as it is even more crucial to invest in human capital, particularly the dynamic and supposedly productive youth sector. Doing so would ensure that we would have a good supply of leaders in our future to make the right decisions and to inspire citizens to do their share. This would address cycle of underdevelopment that has plagued us for decades. Sure, the NYC might be too small to be able to address all the concerns of the youth and empower them to become globally competitive and value-centered Filipinos, but this isn’t reason for us to just disregard altogether the central role it is plays in Philippine youth development.
But what happens when the agency that’s supposed to look after the youth is the first to alienate and ostracize them? The youth become more frustrated and start shifting their energies from productive efforts to non-productive efforts. What a waste of energy that could otherwise be put to good use! The last thing we need in our country is a frustrated youth. I join the countless young people in their frustration; but, being in government, I take my frustration as something positive—it only means that I have kept my idealism despite the many challenges. Apathy would be more alarming because it means resigning to the fact that nothing more can be done.
There is a war—one that is not fought with guns or bullets, but one that is fought with integrity, conviction, and hope.
Sham after sham
I am constrained to report to the Filipino people, particularly to my fellow youth, that the Officials of the National Youth Commission have not served the greater interest of our people, for the following reasons:
1) This is a Youth Commission whose Leadership has cases at the Ombudsman, the Presidential Anti-Graft Commission (PAGC) and the Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC), along with a severely damaged reputation, being subject to numerous complaints from various youth circuits and circulating in e-groups across the country and abroad. This Youth Commission has ganged up on me for my opposition, insisting that we are a collegial body and should therefore be united and agree on everything. But I believe in unity in diversity (there is a reason why the NYC was created to have several commissioners) and upholding truth and justice over everything else. They do not understand that I oppose only those decisions that I know will tarnish our individual and collective reputations, ultimately affecting the credibility and integrity of our agency. They do not understand that we each represent the NYC and our government, and our actions can and will affect the credibility and integrity of the Office we represent. At a time when corruption and hopelessness pervade, our credibility, I believe, is the best gift we could give our country and our fellow young Filipinos.
2) This is the same Youth Commission that has bullied the alumni association of the SSEAYP (Ship for Southeast Asian Youth Program), an organization of passionate and dedicated alumni of the Japanese Government’s SSEAYP program. (The NYC is mandated by law to implement the SSEAYP in the Philippines). The NYC Leadership supported the creation of a different alumni association to divide the current SSEAYP leadership in the Philippines, apparently to get back at them because the group pressed charges against the Officials of the Commission. These cases filed emanated from the Commission’s decision to choose one of its own as National Leader of last year’s SSEAYP delegation (the first time its ever happened) to a two-month all-expense paid cultural cruise across Japan and the ASEAN region. Worse, the Commission went through the motions of a search for applicants even if the NYC’s Leadership had already promised the position to the interested Commissioner. So what initially was just an issue of delicadeza became an issue of deception, a betrayal of public trust.
Genuine leadership seeks to unite, not divide the efforts and convictions of young people. When it does, it's apparent that it is for no other reason but to perpetuate one's stay in power or to secure an otherwise insecure position in society or government.
3) Many youth leaders across the country perceive NYC as using every crisis in the Arroyo Presidency as yet another opportunity to “kiss ass”. This has lead to the moro-moro and incompetent management of our international programs. Slots for foreign trips, scholarships, and exchange programs are given to friends of the officials, with an unwritten, internal arrangement that only those who are pro-administration will be chosen. Take the SSEAYP for instance: its guidelines, which have been in place for several years, were unilaterally changed last year to accommodate an alleged relative of the President. In fairness to the President, I do not think that she is aware of these happenings, nor has she given such order. The irony is that the alleged relative did not apply last year, but the damage has already been done against the integrity of the SSEAYP selection process. And all this after we require applicants of our programs to accomplish so many difficult requirements and submit long essays. These officials have no respect for the efforts of the young people whose interests we all swore to uphold and protect.
4) We’ve all heard about issues concerning our national procurement law, discussed in length at the Senate’s hearings on the NBN-ZTE issue. Unfortunately, corruption in the bidding process is nothing new—not even to the NYC. In the middle of 2006, during an Executive Session in our Regular Commissioners’ Meeting, and in the presence of our previous legal officer, I was so shocked when two of our Commissioners started accusing each other of securing kickbacks from their management of the agency’s BAC (Bids and Awards Committee). The NYC Leadership did not even conduct a formal investigation on the matter.
5) The NYC Leadership ordered for the delivery of computer units despite the advice from our Admin and Finance Division (AFD) that the Presidential Management Staff (PMS) had already denied the release of funds for the project. The project was supposed to be funded by the Presidential Social Fund, but Malacañang denied the release of funds after discovering that there were violations in the bidding process that the NYC leadership approved. For over a year, the supplier of the computer units were not paid and they almost resorted to legal action had it not been for the steps taken by our AFD Division. (I hope the NYC Leadership did not use the computers for an election bid as president of an association of law students, the computers having been distributed to the law school beneficiaries before the association’s election. It’s too much, really, to sacrifice the agency’s reputation for that.)
6) There are fresh reports of a certain Commissioner who allegedly falsified a DILG Memo Circular, forging no less than Secretary Ronaldo Puno’s signature to endorse his SK seminar cum business venture. The falsified DILG Memo Circular endorsed this Commissioner’s training of SKs, an activity unknown to the NYC and its staff. Maybe he preyed on the SKs knowing that they have the funds to participate in his seminars and falsified/forged the signature of the Cabinet Secretary to make sure that they are obliged to join (according to reports, these cost at least Php 5, 000 per participant; with possibly over a thousand SKs in that province who can participate – well, you do the math).
Despite the humiliation and indignity caused by them, many of these Officials still have the nerve to seek reappointment; worse, one is even starting to lobby for the Chairmanship of the NYC. To reappoint or promote anyone from this crop of NYC officials is like sentencing young people in our country to a fate worse than death.
Look who’s talking
There is a long litany of issues (Yes, there are more) that I hope can be resolved in the proper forum. While there is an ongoing debate for the abolition of the Sangguniang Kabataan, what about looking at the activities of the National Youth Commission and the apparent failure of its officials to protect its credibility, having been embroiled in scandal after scandal? How can the SKs look up to the NYC as a guide when the Commission has lost the moral ascendancy to lead them or to even propose reforms in the SK?
To whom much is given, much is also expected. But how can the NYC live up to the high standards young people expect of them when, adding insult to injury, some of its officials have been reported to engage in scandalous sexual and amoral behavior in some of the NYC’s official programs? Complaints from some youth volunteers allege that, in a number of instances, a Commissioner asked them to look for prostitutes for him. Our young people are talking about these debauched activities of a highly decadent Youth Commission, an agency that could have been considered the final frontier, the bastion of integrity and righteousness in the government.
The Officials of the National Youth Commission have failed our country’s youth. Even the hardworking staffs of the agency appear to be demoralized. (The agency’s staff’s turnover rate in the past year is the highest in the NYC’s history)
A war for integrity
As I said, there is a war—and we are all hope warriors who must fight the good fight. As a great American leader once said: If I must choose between righteousness and peace, I choose righteousness. Despite my frustration—and though I’ve contemplated on quitting many times—I refuse to resign from government and would stay for so long as I must, for so long as I can. I gather strength from other young people, from those without any position to make them even care. They are in a serious battle to see a better NYC, one that the youth deserve, because however little their individual effort may be, it will help change things for the better.
Even if I have been able to prove that one can serve in government without compromising his principles, character, and integrity, this isn’t about me. This is a cause larger than myself, but I commit to do my part. Even if it is frustrating to attend the commissioners’ meetings (where one gets the feeling that many things are pre-arranged), I will continue to do so and register my protest when it is called for, and cooperate when good projects are undertaken. Boycott is not an option, it just serves to silence our voice and we end up watching from the sidelines. We must confront every challenge where we find it. For there is a value even when we lose, if we use it to strengthen our resolve to make things right. This does not mean that we should not explore other venues to expose wrong and seek redress for our grievances. All of these efforts are needed.
If, indeed, we Filipinos have a good grasp of right and wrong, then we must also choose what is right. I am sure the President, having publicly declared (repeatedly) her quest to curb corruption and abuse in her government, would appreciate it when people come out and fight to right the wrong that they see.
I urge the President to look into what is happening in the NYC and to listen to the sentiments of the youth. She should know how the acts of her people affect her government and her image among the youth. Yes, the cases are in the courts but it has been almost a year since the cases have been filed and things are getting worse and more damage is done by the day. Surely there is a more expeditious way to address the issues—NOW—before it is too late, before nothing is left of whatever little credibility the NYC still has.
Even if have to give up the one year that’s left of my term for the President to realize how important this is for the youth of our country, than so be it. If that’s what it takes para mapalitan lahat ang dapat mapalitan, palitan na lang rin niya ako—because we are no longer effective and we cannot exist only for ourselves. We have come to a sad and sorry state where the NYC needs to go through fire to be purified. This exposé needs to be made and, when proven in the proper forum, heads surely have to roll to send a strong message that these abuses will not be tolerated. More importantly, we need to restore the faith and the trust of the youth in the NYC. It is imperative.
I also call on my fellow youth—the student council leaders, the SKs, the youth organizations from all over the country—to join in this war. Every Independence Day, we commemorate the youth-led revolution of 1898, when young Filipinos succeeded in passing on to us the freedoms we enjoy today. In every revolution thereafter, young people have always played a central role in their success. But it doesn’t always have to be a revolution against foreign aggression or an oppressive regime—let the Youth Revolution of 2008 be one that is fought by Hope Warriors, young people who want a better future for themselves and for our country, and one that has sent a message, loud and clear, that whether you are President of the Republic, a Senator or Congressman, or Chairman of the National Youth Commission, we will not tolerate any abuse of authority.
I also call on other concerned sectors of society, the Church, our schools, the Senate and Congress, and the Media, to help protect the integrity of young people, and nurture with care, their hopes and dreams and their convictions towards helping our country. To the Senate and Congress, after more than a decade since the establishment of the NYC, maybe it is high time we revisit R.A. 8044 (the Youth in Nation-building Act; the law that created the NYC) and evaluate how effective, or ineffective, it has been in developing the Filipino youth.
The stakes are too high to waver. I am ready to fight this battle. It’s terribly difficult but I know this a defining moment for all of us. Like in any war, the risk of getting wounded in battle is ever-present. Am I afraid? Sure. Uncertainty almost always guarantees fear. But like a friend and mentor once taught me, courage is not the absence of fear, but it is the knowledge that there is something more important than fear itself.
I would rather go down with my integrity intact and my head held up high, than keep up the pretense of integrity where there is none. And I call upon each young Filipino to help me wage this war. Mayday, mayday… I need back up. Let us seize this moment, fight the good fight, and define our generation - and we will soon discover that for our country, and ourselves - the best is yet to come.
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Mike, 24, is a proud Cebuano youth leader who, after starting purely as a volunteer of the NYC, has gone a long way as its Commissioner-at-large.
You may email him at email@example.com.
His blog is here: http://mikeacebedolopez.blogspot.com/