The other side

TIME and getting thrown into the other side of the fence can change one’s perspectives somewhat.

Less than a year ago, Manuel L. Quezon III was a columnist and television analyst. Although he had worked earlier as a consultant for the presidential museum, there was no doubt where his heart lay when it came to the Freedom of Information Act.

In his column and blog, he cited quotes from an FOI advocate he had interviewed and fired broadsides against the leadership of the 14th Congress for resorting to “little stunts” to scuttle the FOI bill.

These included, Quezon wrote in a Jun. 5, 2010 blog post, the switching off of microphones to deny FOI authors voice and volume at the session hall, “mysterious text message urging congressmen not to show up at the House to prevent a quorum… a verified memorandum from the Secretary-General of the House urging committee staff to pack the galleries in anticipation of a mobilization by supporters of the FOI,” and “the publication of the House agenda placing the FOI at the bottom of its order of business, instead of first in line as befits a priority measure.”

“As it turned out,” wrote Quezon, now undersecretary of Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning, “the grim expectations of the supporters of the FOI were fulfilled when the session was gaveled to a close when the quorum was questioned.” This took place on the last session day of the 14th Congress, which was partial to Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

The FOI advocate, Quezon added, “suggested that the House leadership had second thoughts because of the Law of Unintended Consequences… where a seemingly harmless but fashionable legislative proposal ended up scuttled because its implications started to sink in.” In other words, according to Quezon, “it’s scorched-earth complexed with sandbagging.”

Then, there was no denying Quezon’s vigorous push for the FOI. He had so declared in an earlier blog on May 22, 2009, and insisted on bigger and deeper guarantees of access. He said good record-keeping by government agencies should that be a requirement, and that even “concepts like Executive Privilege” should be reviewed.

Quezon wrote: “I support a Freedom of Information Act but with the understanding that it may be very much a Dead Letter even if enacted. Its effectiveness will depend on an institutional awareness of the importance of record-keeping, and the safeguarding of official records – which brings up the problem that much of what is of public interest is not being recorded at all.”

“Minutes of official meetings, and institutional diaries and so forth,” he added, “not all government agencies are created equal in this regard and even those with a tradition of record-keeping, have their records protected by new interpretations of existing laws or concepts like Executive Privilege. This can only make getting to the bottom of current events even more difficult than it already is.”

Like Quezon, Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang had spoken and written fairly much in favor of the FOI before he became part of the Aquino Cabinet in July 2010.

Then a broadcaster and blogger, Carandang in one tweet even lamented the defeat of the FOI bill in the 14th Congress. He wrote: “RIP Freedom of Information Bill. Died 4 June 2010.” – Jaemark Tordecilla, PCIJ, May 2011