Confidential gov’t info illegal under FOI

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    CLARK FREEPORT – “It will no longer be legal to say that this is confidential or this is not a matter of public interest. It must now clearly fall under the list of the exceptions.”

    Thus said Atty. Nepo Malaluan, a leading advocate of the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill, during the “Balitaan" forum of the Capampangan in Media, Inc. (CAMI) at the Bale Balita here last Friday, as he explained the salient points of the proposed controversial bill.

    Malauan said there are three key areas in the enjoyment of the right to access to information. He said the first is the scope of the access, the second is the procedure for accessing the information, and the third is the remedy in case the request for information is denied Malaluan explained that there are two thresholds for the determination of the scope.

    The first is if it is it a matter of public interests and the second are the exceptions. He said “the proposed FOI bill in effect already makes the general rule that every information in the hands of the government is of public interest and can only be denied based on the list of exceptions.”

    Malauan said “in effect, the exceptions also confirmed what was already laid down by jurisprudence except that now there are certain standards in the exceptions on national security or foreign affairs.”

    He said among these standards are foreign affairs matters which can be withheld if the disclosure can damage the negotiating capacity of the Philippine government in an on-going negotiation. “It also introduces certain standards against abuse like the exceptions cannot be used to cover up a crime or graft and corruption” Malaluan said.

    He added that the aspect of “public interests override,” which is provided under the FOI bill, empowers the ordinary citizens’ access to pertinent information which will lend transparency and full accountability in government transactions.

    But he said if they have a valid exemption which is clearly on the list “the citizens can still resort to remedy which allows you to go to court by filing a petition for mandamus to compel an agency to disclose the information.”

    Malaluan said under the FOI bill, information on a tortured victim cannot be denied based on the exemption on national security. But at present, he said government agencies can be adamant in not giving out information since there is no administrative or criminal liability.

    The agencies are less concerned if a court case is fi led because of the process under the present situation, he said. Meanwhile, members of the media told Malaluan that access to information is never unraveled.

    “Ninanakaw namin yan (We steal that),” said CAMI vice president and veteran newsman Ernie Tolentino citing as an example the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), a government agency that registers and records corporations and partnerships status in this country and the repository of all financial statements of corporations.

    But Tolentino said under the present law, SEC records are supposed to be public documents and anybody can have access to them. “But in our experience, there are certain records which up to now we failed to gain access to,” he lamented.

    CAMI director Willie Capulong regrets that only those that have financial capability canuse the “remedy” by going to court. Malaluan said it is for this reason that the FOI bill must be passed into law.

    “We have been saying that is not really just a media legislation. It is a citizens’ legislation. It is the access of ordinary citizens to pertinent public information,” he said. Malaluan is a trustee at the Action for Economic Reforms and Co-Director of the Institute for Freedom of Information. He is also co-convenor of the Right to Know. Right Now!
     
    Coalition, a network of more than 150 organizations from various sectors that have long been campaigning for the passage of the Freedom of Information Act.

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