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Provision on exceptions in FOI EO worrying

Photo from PCOO
Provision on exceptions in FOI EO worrying

ANY INITIATIVE TO assure access to government-held information is a step towards greater transparency. For so long, the lack of a strong mechanism to ensure transparency in government records and transactions has allowed corruption and the culture of impunity to persist.

The signing of the presidential order on the Freedom of Information is thus an encouraging step by the Duterte administration. The swift action is a stark contrast from the previous administration that also had FOI among its priorities but failed to pass the FOI bill or any form of mechanism. It is a welcome move for a public that has long been denied of their full right to information.

But the Duterte Executive Order (EO) that mandates all executive department agencies to provide information on government activities and transactions when asked is still subject to existing exceptions. Section 4 of the EO states that access to information may be denied “when the information falls under any of the exceptions enshrined in the Constitution, existing law, or jurisprudence.

Thus, while we commend the act of the President, we have to raise this crucial point – Section 4 as it is currently worded could effectively defeat the purpose of the entire EO.

The said section also directs the Department of Justice and the Office of the Solicitor General to prepare an inventory – not to draw up a list of possible exceptions, as has been reported by the media – of such exceptions.

The inventory – meaning exceptions already “enshrined in the Constitution, existing law or jurisprudence” – must be submitted to the Office of the President, which will then “circularize the inventory of exceptions to all government offices” covered by the EO as well as to the general public.

The implication is clear: whatever exceptions already in the law are exempt from public access. In addition, Section 4 also mandates a periodic updating of the inventory of exceptions to reflect any change in existing law or jurisprudence, which suggests that the “inventory” has the potential to grow over time.

What this amounts to is that public access to information – being still subject to existing exceptions – remains restricted. This means that the call for an FOI Law remains urgent and valid not just to address the limited coverage of the EO but to also deal with concerns on the exceptions to information that the public can access.

It also means that for media practitioners, people’s organizations and the Filipino public, much work still has to be done to attain genuine freedom of information.

Reference: Prof. Luis V. Teodoro, National Chairperson

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