Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The right to know

Secrecy is the freedom tyrants dream of.—Bill Moyers

Action for Economic Reforms (AER) is a public-interest organization involved in research and reform advocacy. Last March, AER coordinator Filomeno Sta. Ana III wrote a letter to Undersecretary Elmer Hernandez, managing head of the Board of Investments, requesting information that would help AER’s research on fiscal incentives. The research, according to Sta. Ana, was in connection with pending legislation “to streamline and rationalize the incentives systems.”

Sta. Ana asked Hernandez for a list of companies that received fiscal incentives, the sectors to which they belonged, and the types of and equivalent amounts of incentives given to them, specifically the following:

1. Income-tax holiday.

2. Exemption from taxes and duties on imported spare parts.

3. Exemption from wharfage dues and export tax, duty, import and fees.

4. Tax exemption on breeding stocks and genetic materials.

5. Tax credits.

6. Additional deductions from taxable income.

Hernandez replied to Sta. Ana one month later, through Lucita Reyes, executive director, Project Assessment Group.

“We regret to inform you that we cannot provide the data requested given that incentives availed by firms do not form part of general information and are, therefore, considered confidential in nature.”

Kompeeedentchal in naychor? A seeekret?

The government gives tax breaks and other fiscal incentives to certain companies and it can keep the beneficiaries, the type and amount of incentives hidden from the public? Yes!

There is no law that requires government officials to disclose information that the public has a right to know. Even the Supreme Court lamented the absence of such a law.

“It is unfortunate, however, that after almost 20 years from the birth of the 1987 Constitution, there is still no enabling law that provides the mechanics for the compulsory duty of government agencies to disclose information on government transactions.  Hopefully, the desired enabling law will finally see the light of day if and when Congress decides to approve the proposed Freedom of Access to Information Act.” (Chavez v. NFA).

The Supreme Court in Valmonte et al. v. Belmonte also said the right to information is essential to democracy.

“The cornerstone of this republican system of government is delegation of power by the people to the state. In this system, governmental agencies and institutions operate within the limits of the authority conferred by the people. Denied access to information on the inner workings of government, the citizenry can become prey to the whims and caprices of those to whom the power had been delegated.”

The right to information is a pillar of democracy because it supports other rights. Freedom of the press and of speech, the right to petition the government for redress of grievances cannot be properly exercised if the public is kept in the dark about the government’s doings.

The Freedom of Access to Information Act of 2009 (FOIA) will strengthen the principle of the accountability of public officials.

“Unless citizens have the proper information, they cannot hold public officials accountable for anything”  (Supreme Court in Chavez v. Public Estates Authority).

Lawyer Nepomuceno Malaluan, a staunch advocate of the FOIA, explained the urgent need for the law.

“The essence of the bill is to make the constitutional right to know and the policy of full disclosure of transactions involving public interest finally operable. Currently, the right is practically unenforceable. For instance, there is no standard procedure in dealing with information requests. Second, there is no clear law defining coverage. Third, although the Supreme Court said the policy of full public disclosure requires government to disclose certain transactions of public interest without need of request or demand, there is no legal mechanism to do this. Fourth, there are no effective sanctions for the unlawful denial of information so there is no disincentive against violating the right.”

The Freedom of Information Act of 2009 is pending in the Senate. This is the third time such a bill has been brought before that body. An earlier version was not taken up because the Senate was preoccupied with the Estrada impeachment. A later version was derailed when the Committee on Public Information took on the “Hello Garci” hearings. There are no distractions this year. The Senate has no excuse not to pass the law this time around.

Right to Know, Right Now!

1 comment:

Jun Bautista said...

Only an informed public can form n intelligent public opinion. The right to know is a corollary of the freedom of speech.