When the clamor came out for Congress to pass a freedom of information (FOI) bill, I said Noynoy should (bypass Congress and) issue an executive order (EO) mandating FOI in the branch of the government that needs it most, his own. The Executive is the spending branch of the government. That covers even Congress, because the Department of Budget and Management knows how much every member of Congress gets. While the Commission on Audit within the Executive branch knows how she spent it.
It might cover the judiciary if you want to go there.
So when President Duterte issued his EO FOI, I said, well done. But it escaped no one’s attention that the EO FOI was riddled with exceptions, like cheese with holes after the worms who wrote it are gone.
But, whatever the exceptions might be, I thought the President was still committed to waive them in the spirit of the order he issued. But watching Karen Davila’s talk show last Monday, with guests Vergel Santos and a representative of the National Union of Journalists, I realized that requests for information can now be routinely rejected and no action lies to compel compliance.
On its face, some 122 exceptions exist. It was pointed out by Santos that the exceptions cover everything of any public interest or the remotest curiosity.
Santos added that, right there, you have 122 subjects of public interest that the media can cover only at grave risk. These subjects are now taboo.
But his calm companion sedately observed that, in fact, the media is never constrained by anything but timidity and laziness. It is the ordinary citizen that lost out. For the one hope of knowing why their barangay clinic has no medicines is legally frustrated by the EO. And yet, it is in the local level that the stealing and the waste are the most robust.
But Santos is right. Altogether, the 122 exceptions to the EO FOI flat out reject any request for information without having to explain, let alone comply with the request. But he is wrong that the subjects of these exceptions are now taboo.
To report on them violates no law, unless the exception is part of existing national security or state secret laws, or the peculiar punishment I inserted in the antimoney- laundering law and directed at owners of the media for putting out information about bank accounts from the Anti-Money Laundering council.
But Santos is right, the EO FOI might better be called a freedom of exceptions than of any measure of information.
It is a jar of air.
While the previous administration refused to enable the constitutional provision, the EO FOI legally mocks the constitutional desire—the desire to know all things of public interest—because those are the things for which the public pays taxes.
So the public must know
Where their taxes go,
They who pay the piper
Get to read
In the end, I was right after all. The approach should have been, not access to information, but no access to public funding of any public project, the documentation and the discussions of which were not published and broadcast first. Before a peso of tax money is released for them.
No publication, no funding, period.
But what a public official or a publisher, for that matter, does with his pampam girls—that is none of the public’s business. Period on that also.