Information is not free (Business Mirror (Philippines))

Sweden was the first to do it in 1766, nearly 250 years ago. The newest country in the world, South Sudan, placed it at the top of its agenda, having it two years after independence. Thailand did it in 1997, and war-torn Afghanistan passed it in 2014.

One hundred and four nations around the world from such diverse countries as Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Mongolia are on the list of those that guarantee freedom of information. But not the Philippines.

Article III, Section 7 of the Philippine Constitution reads: The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized. Access to official records, and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.

But the Philippine legislature has never provided the law to fulfill this section of the Constitution by passing a Freedom of Information Act. The Aquino administration that wants its legacy to be one of honesty has continuously denied the people the one piece of legal framework to help guarantee government honesty.

The excuse propounded is that certain information could be so sensitive and serious that it would not be in the best interest of the country if that information were to be disclosed. That has always been the reason that governments have used to keep the people from knowing what is going on behind the scenes.

There are certainly legitimate reasons to keep certain information secret. The military has always argued-and in our opinion rightly so-that an abuse of the freedom to obtain information could put both operations and people in great jeopardy.

Yet, the unanswered questions that may be hiding in government documents about the Mamasapano deaths must also be taken into consideration. There absolutely must be a balance struck between the public’s right to know and the government’s right to information protection.

But 104 other countries have found ways to balance those rights. Why is the Philippine government unable to fulfill both obligations?

The lack of transparency of information is not right. But, perhaps, even worse is the current administration’s unwillingness to proceed with the passage of the Freedom of Information law. Paraphrasing Customs Commissioner Alberto D. Lina, If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.

This is not about digging up dirt about the government or about politics. This is about giving the people a system and legal framework to obtain information that they have a right to know. The government equally has the right to withhold information. However, as the public does not have the right to free and unlimited access to information, neither does the government have the right to unilaterally restrict that access. That is what the courts are there to do.

It is time to move forward and pass a Freedom of Information Act.

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