Global Voices, a website that aggregates news and information from an international community of bloggers, recently posted an obituary entitled “Philippines: Congress Fails to Pass Freedom of Information Bill.” In my mind, this failed reform is but a lost battle in the larger war waged between patronage politics and good governance. Winning the war entails much more than enacting a new law; it requires transforming the country’s political culture from one dominated by a web of patronage relationships to one characterized by transparency, accountability, and participation.
I was in Manila during the bill’s final days, and monitored the news with deep interest as a coalition of local and international advocates launched a public campaign in support of the bill’s ratification. On May 24, 2010, ABS-CBNNews.com and the front page of The Philippine Star, an influential broadsheet, carried a piece entitled “World awaits RP’s (Republic of the Philippines) Freedom of Info Act” by veteran journalist Malou Mangahas. Here’s a snippet:
“Today starts a series of mass actions by journalists, workers, students, professionals, business and church leaders, and civil society groups in their vigorous push for Congress to ratify the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. But the world waits and watches, too. More than just a Philippine story, the 14-year advocacy of Filipinos for Congress to enact the law has become a serious concern of freedom of information advocates, scholars, and members of parliament across the globe.”
That same day, said Mangahas, more than 130 groups comprising the “Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition” would hold a motorcade through the streets of Manila, culminating in a rally in front of Congress. A couple of days earlier, on May 22, a host of organizations from both the local and global community, including some of the most prominent international media development and access to information organizations, addressed a joint statement in support of the bill to the President and Congressional leaders. Even local and foreign private sector groups weighed in, issuing statements of their own.
Shortly thereafter, the Speaker of the House announced that Congress couldn’t do it before the close of their term because they needed to focus on pressing business -- canvassing election returns and declaring the President- and Vice President-elect. All would surely agree that these were critically important tasks. But many experts, including members of Congress, countered that passage could have taken a mere five minutes. All the lower house needed to do was ratify the bill as the Senate had already done.
On May 26, a day after the Speaker had made the announcement, The Star’s lead editorial rang the death knell: “Good as dead.” A couple of weeks later, Global Voices blogger Karlo Mikhail Mongaya paid his last respects: “The Philippine Congress last session was marked by its failure to pass the Freedom of Information Bill, a landmark law that will enforce a policy of disclosure to government transactions. The proposed law sanctions officials who deny access to information and is perceived as essential to ensuring the people’s constitutional right to know.”
This bill has been awaiting enactment for 14 years. A long time, for sure, but a split second compared to centuries of patronage relationships that have ruled political processes and social norms in the country. The larger and more fundamental issue, in my opinion, is whether these processes and norms can be replaced with “ways of doing things” that are based on the conviction that citizens possess the right to hold elected officials and public service providers to account.
While battling to secure the practical tools of accountability that well crafted freedom of information laws provide, we must not shy away from the difficult work of understanding local political culture and supporting indigenous change agents who, within the realities of their own environments, imagine something different for themselves and the people for whom they so selflessly sacrifice personal comfort and security.
Photo credit: Flickr user leighblackall