By Patrick Acupan
FOI Youth Initiative (FYI) is the youth arm of the Right to Know, Right Now! (R2KRN) Coalition. It has been advocating an accountable and transparent government by enabling youth participation in public affairs.
Since its inception in August 2012, FYI has advanced the youth-led campaign for Freedom of Information (FOI). As a national network of youth and student organizations, FYI has reached out far and wide not only to the young but to the general population in pushing for a law on FOI.
Enshrined in the 1987 Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines (Article III, Sec. 7) is the right of the people to access information on matters of public concern. But this needs an enabling law.
In the 16th Congress, FYI was the only youth group to co-sponsor the Peoples’ FOI Act through a petition for indirect initiative. Unfortunately, the bill did not pass. It was paradoxical that the Chief Executive then, who branded himself as an anti-corruption advocate, lacked the political determination to secure the passage of FOI.
This reminds me of a conversation I once had with one of my mentors. She told me that some leaders can disappoint us, but others might surprise us.
In Congress, the politicians vote for different reasons. Some believe in the principles or the merits of the proposal. Others are motivated by public interest, but one can argue that the majority of politicians act on self-interest. Loyalty and subservience as well as bribes and pressure can also explain how they vote.
Even when least expected, a politician can change position overnight. In the case of the tobacco tax, despite the loudness of senators who opposed a high tax, they eventually succumbed and voted for the tax. Whatever the reason behind the sudden change of heart, these politicians avoided becoming villains in the end.
The point is that in legislation, even if conditions look bad, anything can still happen.
Ponder this: Rodrigo Duterte signed Executive Order (EO) No. 2, series of 2016, which operationalized Freedom of Information in the Executive branch. It was an important victory for the FOI campaign. This created space for citizens to get information and make government more transparent and accountable.
Did I see this EO coming? Honestly, no. I was surprised that this happened under the current leadership, and not during the preceding one.
That it has been put in place is an advance for the good governance advocacy. But this EO is far from meeting desired goals. Three years after it rolled out, the EO has accommodated 15,300 requests to 450 government agencies, using the e-FOI portal. Of these requests, 42% were successfully granted. However, the completeness and quality of the information provided leave much to be desired.
In addition, the EO’s scope excludes the legislative and judiciary branches and the local government units.
In short, the EO cannot replace a law on FOI. Furthermore, an FOI Law can address other weaknesses of the EO, such as the absence of sanctions for unlawful denial or delay of access to information.
Hence, the FYI, together with other groups advocating transparent government should continue pressing Congress for FOI legislation. The previous Congress slept on it.
But who knows whether the 18th Congress will be receptive to FOI? After all the current Speaker of the House, the controversial Allan Peter Cayetano, was an articulate champion and a bill sponsor of FOI. In the Senate, past experience tells us that the passage of FOI is predictable.
For the FYI then, it will use every little opportunity to have the FOI passed in the 18th Congress. The truth is, no legislator will speak in public opposing FOI. But for legislators to act favorably, public pressure is necessary.
With this in mind, FYI will intensify efforts within and beyond the halls of Congress. As a generation empowered by social media, the youth will continue to harness creative and innovative means to turn their collective call into a resounding clamor heard across cyberspace and the real world.
Patrick Acupan is a convenor of the FOI Youth Initiative and a campaigner for the sin tax team of Action for Economic Reforms.