Media, NGOs to House: Ratify FOI

Right to information enables
right to life, land, livelihood

THE URBAN poor evicted from their homes. The workers who were suddenly retrenched. The farmers who lost their land to a politician’s real estate firm. The indigenous peoples who were displaced by big mining projects. Journalists who were unable to pursue a big story after being denied access to supposedly public documents. And taxpayers who suspect that their money was being frittered away to corruption.

They are all stakeholders in the quest for full, correct and timely information.

They are all who should know all the data behind their problems and how and why these have happened and could affect their lives for the better or worse.

And they are but a few examples that show just how the campaign to promote and ensure people’s access to information and documents held by the state is everybody’s business.

This is what Ramon Magsaysay awardee Aruna Roy, the 64-year-old acclaimed leader of India’s Right to Information Movement, has learned in her decades of spearheading democratic struggles, which led to the enactment of her country’s Right to Information Act in 2005.

Indeed, according to her, layers and layers of rights – to land, job, housing, education, livelihood, or even, life and liberty – could be enabled by a law that enforces and protects the people’s right to know.

Records & rights

“Poor people in India saw the lack of access to information as a blockage to the solution of their problems, for instance, on food security, land rights, wages, access to medicine, and education,” says Roy.

“They realized that government records must come out because their livelihood was linked to those records,” she adds. “Government’s explanation wasn’t enough. The people themselves had to see and understand the records, so they, too, could understand their situation and know their rights.”

Roy was one of the speakers in the recent forum, “Freedom of Information: National Demands and Global Lessons,” organized by the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition of media, civil society, and nongovernment groups supporting the Freedom of Information Act, which still awaits ratification by the House of Representatives of the 14th Philippine Congress. The forum was held last May 25 at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City.

The Senate is scheduled to resume its session at 10 this morning and the House, at 4 this afternoon. Only a few days remain before they adjourn sine die to give way to the newly elected 15th Congress.

Last May 24, two minority lawmakers moved to ratify the bicameral conference committee report on the FOI but were told by House leaders that the day was focused on the “constitutional duty” of the chamber to approve the rules on the canvassing of the votes cast last May 10.

The motion was withdrawn after leaders of the majority and minority parties agreed to enroll the legislation on the House’s agenda when its resumes its legislative session today, May 31.

Abante: I insist

Manila Rep. Bienvenido Abante, chair of the House committee on public information that authored the House bill together with 190 other lawmakers, told the PCIJ over the weekend that he would insist on ratification today.

Abante said he will file a manifestation and raise a motion to ratify the FOI Act today, citing that the House leadership led by Speaker Prospero Nograles had precisely committed to include it on the chamber’s agenda when it resumes session today.

The House’s ratification, largely a ministerial process that involves a quick voice vote by the lawmakers, is the last step before the measure is submitted to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo for her to sign the bill into law.

The Senate had ratified the bicameral conference committee report on the FOI last February or three months ago. The legislation is the last unfinished shared business of the two chambers, apart from the ongoing work of the National Board of Canvassers.

Days after the passage of the measure by a full two-thirds or 197 of about 220 House members on May 12, 2008, Nograles’s tone had been ecstatic as he urged the Senate to pass its version of the measure, affirming that “we all believe in the principle that the constitutional powers of government emanate from the people.” Nograles is a co-author of the FOI Act.

But after the Senate ratified the measure in February 2009, Nograles’s enthusiasm in pushing for the bill to become law seems to have waned.

Last May 24, more than two years later, Nograles replied to PCIJ’s query regarding the fate of the measure this way: “It depends on the mood of the congressmen.” Should the House fail to ratify before it adjourns, he said a new FOI bill would just have to be refiled with the 15th Congress.

However, in an interview last Friday with journalist Arnold Clavio on radio DZBB, Nograles once again gave his commitment: He said the ratification of the FOI Act remains his “priority” before the 14th Congress bows out next month.

Fulfill promise

India’s Aruna Roy says the test of a public servant’s sincerity is based on one’s capability to fulfill one’s commitment. “You made a promise, you have to do it,” she says.

She also says that it is important for stakeholders to always demand public servants to fulfill their promises.

Under a representative democracy, public servants should share power and not horde it for themselves or for their personal gain, according to the Indian activist.

“People should ask for fundamental sharing of power,” Roy says. “Democracy is common sense, it is about making truth powerful and making power truthful.”

Roy recounts how in 1996, a small organization of peasants and workers in India called the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), which she helped found, began a series of street protests in central Rajasthan in India.

Even then, India was certainly no stranger to demonstrations. But the MKSS-led actions took up what was then usually discussed only inside courtrooms, newsrooms, and the academe: a demand for information from the government that had something to do with the people’s livelihood and survival.

Pouring into the streets of Rajasthan, the protesters demanded information about the school in their village and how much was spent for its repair. They wanted to know why roads remain unpaved and dams continued leaking despite available budget for infrastructure. They wanted to see records that would explain why laborers were not paid minimum wage, and why farmers could not avail of rights to the land they had been tilling for decades.

At first, critics doubted that the poor and marginalized people of India would be interested in joining the right to information campaign. “But we told them, how can you get the land rights unless you get the documents out?” says Roy.

‘Information activists’

She says poor people in India managed to transform themselves into information activists because they understood the link between their problems and the importance of having access to government data.

It was the “energy” of the people that “carried India’s right to information in the first 10 years,” Roy says.

“They had immense commitment and energy to fight for it,” she says. “It’s not a luxury that they can do without. They understood that if they don’t have it, then they won’t exist.”

The right to information campaign is like water, according to the veteran community activist: “It has no color, and it flows continuously. If it is linked to the land, it will become strength to the land issue. If it is linked to the struggles of workers and peasants, then the right to information will also become their issue.”

She says that her people’s struggle that led to the enactment of India’s Right to Information Act gives hope to countries like the Philippines that profess to be democracies.

“If the Philippines is a democracy,” Roy says, “then (the government) has to give it to you.” PCIJ, May 2010