As a citizen of the Philippines, a country that has been without a right to information law for more than 20 years, I find today — the International Day for Universal Access to Information— somewhat depressing.
Although the right to information was enshrined in the Philippine constitution 30 years ago, the county’s legislature has yet to engage in any serious effort to enact and implement a Freedom of Information (FOI) law. 2015 looked like the year transparency activists would finally have something to celebrate, until Congressional inaction doomed a draft FOI bill that had been through a series of consultations.
An FOI for surveillance?
Current President Rodrigo Duterte signed an Executive Order (EO) on FOI a few weeks after he entered office in June last year. While the EO does not provide the same safeguards as a law — it can be rescinded anytime and only covers the executive branch — in theory it operationalises the constitutional right to information of every Filipino.
However, the 30-page implementation guidelines include 11 pages of exceptions to what can be requested. More disturbing though, is how the FOI process is being implemented. Requests for information will only be processed if proof of identification is provided. To submit an FOI request online, a requester must register and provide an official identification card — a daunting requirement from a government notoriously hostile to human rights.
Activists I have talked to say this requirement is problematic, violating rules on proportionality. FOI should be a vehicle for citizens to make governments accountable, not a mechanism for governments to spy on citizens. Capturing addresses, mobile numbers and sensitive ID information gives the government a greater ability to monitor citizens, while retaining the discretion to grant or reject requests. Those seeking information will think twice before submitting such personal information.
Online registration form to submit FIO request in the Philippines.
An FOI for “Open Washing”?
Duterte’s FOI EO — disclosing only processed information, not raw data — does not square with the country’s endorsement of the Open Data Charter. This is not the first time the country’s words were louder than its actions. Two years ago, it launched an open data portalonly for it to be neglected in the middle of 2016, without the necessary updates and maintenance. After going offline between April and June this year, the portal was launched again in July with much of the previous data missing or difficult to find in archived folders. Previously available procurement data, for example, can no longer be found.
This is a clear case of open-washing. The Philippine government exhibits a level of openness, disclosing data in a portal and operationalising FOI through an EO, but only provides the data that is politically convenient to disclose. For example, the Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) of politicians and government officials, which is important to reveal corruption risks within the bureaucracy, is available as open data but was recently redacted by the executive branch of the Philippine government when journalists requested copies.
This problem is not particular to the Philippines. Our research in Malaysia found that by intentionally shielding data from public view, the government makes it difficult to establish politicians’ business interests and explore how they may affect procurement decisions. It took a great collaboration effort of civil society organisations, media and researchers to find, aggregate, and visualise data on how various government officials were implicated in the 1MDB scandal — probably the biggest corruption scandal to hit the Malaysian bureaucracy in recent years.
Backsliding government transparency?
The Web Foundation’s latest Open Data Barometer ranked the Philippines the top performing middle-income country in the world and placed it 22nd globally. However, the research was conducted from July 2015 to June 2016, months before the developments above took place. We’ll be watching closely to see how the country measures up on transparency in the next Barometer and other global indices.
For transparency advocates like myself, today is no reason to celebrate. It’s a reminder of how far many countries have to go to fulfil the ‘right to know’ in a meaningful way. Though President Duterte wanted to appease activists with the FOI EO, he is not serious about implementing government transparency. And so, the hard fight for a real FOI law continues.