Friday, August 10, 2012

The Philippines needs a Freedom of Information Act

For a country that likes to claim itself as having a near absolute freedom of the press, it is odd that bonafide Filipino journalists do not have full access to all government documents.

Media practitioners—at least the more serious ones – take to heart their being the so-called Fourth Estate. The judiciary, executive and legislative branches of government have their respective checks and balances, but it is media that can be as objective as possible when informing the public about what the three branches of government do.

Media reports the truth, but that truth cannot always be reported. Not when important documents are hidden from public view. Such documents may be used in a variety of ways, not the least of which is to investigate suspected wrongdoing.

Having access to government-held documents can also work in a positive way, by clearing those suspected of committing crimes and misdemeanors, but who turn out to be innocent.

The Philippines has long patterned its institutions after the United States, and in that country, their version of the FOI has been used constructively by the best and brightest journalists, be they print, broadcast or electronic.

The US experience

The point of American media is no different from our own. A person with nothing to hide has nothing to fear. And government officials, in particular, ideally have to be elected or appointed with clean hands.

It is the journalist’s job to ferret out the truth whenever government officials are suspected of wrongdoing.

It is worth noting that US media has been able to expose the past shenanigans of those who aspire to become their president because they had access to documents that are considered sensitive.

For the longest time, Filipino journalists have been asking, begging, cajoling, charming and pleading with Congress to pass a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. Too often have mediamen and women been frustrated by the doors that are figuratively closed to them, sometimes in the name of “national security.” Such is the catch-all phrase that, in effect, tells media to back off.

The long pending FOI would have provided the entry point for media to do a better job. No longer would stories be written based on unsubstantiated claims of government officials. Those “he said, she said” stories have always lacked substance and depth. In a lot of cases, obvious lies are peddled to the public via media, and there is no way of verifying claims because access is denied.

For reasons known only to himself and presumably the Cabinet secretaries closest to him, President Benigno Aquino 3rd has opted not to give the FOI bill his full support. What support he has given to the proposed law may be deemed lame, at best.

His reason

There may be a reason for President Aquino’s lack of enthusiasm for the FOI act. Very recently, he attended an event at one of the country’s biggest media organizations, where he took the opportunity to claim that the reporting by the station’s news anchors left much to be desired.

Specifically, the President took issue with the way former vice president Noli de Castro reported the news. Mr. Aquino cited the supposed snide remarks and side comments that were irrelevant to the news being reported. Perhaps the Chief Executive had a point. But he also failed to point out that the wife of his party president and running mate during the last presidential elections was also with the same station, and her reporting could be perceived as biased in favor of the administration.

Media’s job has never been to make any government official look good or bad. At its best, media only reports the news as it happens. Objectively.

Most of the previous administrations have had their beefs with how media treated them. But for the record, Philippine media also has serious issues with how MalacaƱang and the Cabinet secretaries who directly dealt with them did their jobs.

Part of the corruption in media that some officials complain about has its roots in the presidential palace.

On the plus side, Philippine media has to be happy with the fact that 117 lawmakers have publicly supported the measure. This means that there is a good chance that the FOI act will be passed by this Congress. Philippine media can then rightfully expect President Aquino to sign it into law.

Only the beginning

Having a Freedom of Information Act will only be the beginning. Only after it has been in effect will the public see if it is a law that delivers on its promises.

Expectations will be high and media must do its part. The law cannot and must not be used by media organizations with a hidden agenda to inflict harm. About the worst thing that can happen as a result of the law is for media attack hounds on the payroll of crooks to be unleashed against innocent government officials.

Hopefully, local media will reach a level of maturity that places it at par with its US or Western counterparts.

Whether he realizes it or not, Philippine media can be a partner in President Aquino’s crusade against corruption. For as long as he himself remains as clean and honest as he is perceived, the current MalacaƱang occupant will have nothing to fear. And for as long as he has nothing to hide, most of Philippine media will quietly cheer him on as he struggles to tread the straight and narrow path of truth. The Manila Times

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