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Executive offices told to give public access to records

Posted on July 25, 2016

A MEASURE opening documents with the Executive branch to public scrutiny has become law, providing what Malacañang said last weekend would be a “cornerstone” for a Freedom of Information (FoI) Act that has otherwise languished in Congress since at least 1992.

Presidential Communications Secretary Martin M. Andanar told journalists in Davao City last Saturday that President Rodrigo R. Duterte signed the executive order (EO) that day.

A copy e-mailed by Malacañang to media showed the EO operationalizes “in the Executive branch the people’s constitutional right to information and the state policies of full public disclosure and transparency...” and provides guidelines to be followed by departments and agencies concerned.

It is based on Section 28, Article II of the 1987 Constitution that provides that “the State adopts and implements a policy of full public disclosure of all its transactions involving public interest, subject to reasonable conditions prescribed by law” and the same charter’s Section 7, Article III that “guarantees the right of the people to information on matters of public concern.”

The country’s biggest business groups have advocated legislative approval of a more encompassing measure covering the entire government since at least 2010, and this proposal has constantly formed part of their Arangkada Philippines report since that year that outlined recommendations to the government for improving the economy and tracking progress -- or lack of it -- of official action on each one.

Henry J. Schumacher, external affairs vice-president of the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, welcomed the development, calling it “a good step in creating transparency in government dealings.”

“While the previous administration was not able to deliver the FoI, this EO clearly sets the direction of the new administration, with or without Congress,” Mr. Schumacher said in a mobile phone message.

John D. Forbes, senior adviser of the American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, Inc., called the EO “a landmark measure”, saying separately in a text message that “[b]usinesses welcome more transparent government operations, less red tape, faster service and less corruption.”

The EO covers all offices under the Executive branch, including government-owned or -controlled corporations as well as state universities and colleges.

Local governments, it added, “are encouraged to observe and be guided by this order.”

Senator Aquilino “Koko” L. Pimentel III, who is widely expected to take the helm of the Senate as president this morning, said “the President (Duterte) can expect the Senate to follow his lead with a bill to implement freedom of information throughout all branches of the government.”

For now, the EO gives all citizens “access to information, official records, public records and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for public [sic, in the Constitution, this reads ‘policy’ -- ed.] development.”

“There shall be a legal presumption in favor of access to information, public records and official records,” the order reads.

“No request for information shall be denied unless it clearly falls under any of the exceptions listed in the inventory or updated inventory of exceptions circularized by the Office of the President...”

The EO clarifies that access to records will be denied when such information “falls under any of the exceptions enshrined in the Constitution, existing law or jurisprudence”.

It orders the Justice department and the Office of the Solicitor General to submit a list of exceptions to Malacañang within 30 days from its date of effectivity.

It also directed officials deciding and acting on requests for information to give “full protection to the right of privacy of the individual” as they give requesting parties access to records. Among others, such officials should:

• “ensure that personal information... is disclosed or released only if it is material or relevant to the subject matter of the request and its disclosure is permissible under this order or existing laws, rules or regulations”; and

• make “reasonable security arrangements against leaks or premature disclosure of personal information which unduly exposes the individual whose personal information is requested to vilification, harassment or any other wrongful acts.”

Finally, the EO prescribes steps to be taken by parties requesting information held by offices of the Executive branch, deadlines for acting on them (e.g. 15 days to respond from receipt of such requests), as well as procedures for appealing denial of requests. -- inputs from C. Q. Francisco in Davao City as well as FGE and JSR in Metro Manila