They came, they had fun, they had selfies. Over the weekend, however, concerned members of the country’s youth came together to take a serious position that had nothing to do with having their best angles to the camera.

Participants in the First National FOI Youth Congress called on lawmakers to hasten the passage of the Freedom of Information bill during a three-day gathering at the University of the Philippines National College of Public Administration and Governance.

Some 300 members of the FOI Youth Initiative (FYI) also called on their fellow youth to join in the fight to transform the government “into an institution that is worthy of the trust of the people that it serves”.

Youth leaders noted how the older generation tends to brand today’s youth as self-absorbed an apathetic. But in this particular issue, FYI leaders said, the youth are really taking the initiative.

“Apathetic and selfish – that is how some older people view our generation…(but the) youth of today can actually be passionate about something socially relevant”, Allan Pangilinan, lead convenor of the FOI Youth Initiative said.

The three-day event gathered youth and student organizations that supported calls for the immediate passage of a Freedom of Information Law that they hope would institute more transparency and accountability in government. The bill has is still mouldering at the House committee on public information even though as Senate version has already been passed on third reading.

Jeff Crisostomo, one of the founders of the network, pointed out that the FYI has grown today into a national network of more than 200 youth and student groups, four time larger since its founding at least three years ago when it only had 50 member-organizations.

Crisostomo, who is now the legislative and media officer of Rep. Kaka J. Bag-ao, called on members of the FYI to come up with “creative means” in pushing for the passage of the FOI as he pointed out that it is necessary in ensuring more transparency in public services especially education.

He also said that the push should include encouraging local government officials to come up with their own local Freedom of Information ordinances.

“Let us show (President Aquino) that we mean business”, he added.

Lawyer Nepomuceno Malaluan, lead convenor of the Right To Know, Right Now! Coalition said the FYI is a “testament to the power and essence of FOI” because it “bridges generations” who want to hold their governments “accountable and to be informed to enable the effective exercise of rights”.

PCIJ Executive Director Malou Mangahas, who delivered a talk on the practice of accessing information, said the push for an FOI is not only based on whims by its advocates but is grounded on declarations by the United Nations that the right to information is the foundation of all rights.

She also underscored the fact that this is not a special law for journalists, and accessing information is being done by reporters acting as trustees of public interest. If there is no right to information, for example, it is impossible for the public to know about contracts being entered into by the government that would impact on their lives.

With the absence of an FOI, persistence is important in getting information or documents from the government. “Whoever blinks first loses; it is the coping mechanisms that make a difference in the Philippines, not because of the FOI”, she said.

Mangahas also pointed out the difference between the open government policy and a rights-based freedom of information regime.

The open government policy means that agencies and offices would be putting out their information on the Worldwide Web but this would depend on the terms of the government and not on the demand of people for information.

“Government’s voluntary disclosure is not good enough; if it is really, then why did the (Disbursement Acceleration Program) happen? Open data is not a bypass solution for an FOI Law.”

Among the organizers of the activity are the University Student Council of the University of the Philippines, the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy Student Council, and the UP Economics Towards Consciousness.

Senator Grace Poe, main author of the Senate version of the FOI and chair of the Committee on People’s Public Information and Mass Media, lauded the FYI as she pointed out the urgent need for an FOI.

“The attainment of a just, progressive, and lasting peace greatly depends upon the free flow of information to the public”, she said. Julius D. Mariveles

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