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‘Vigilance needed with FOI law’

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MANILA, Philippines—The House of Representatives’ research body thinks a freedom of information (FOI) law would improve governance but also warns that getting government to sincerely implement it could be challenging and would require media and civil society vigilance.

As Congress prepares to debate the bill, the Congressional Policy and Budget Research Department (CPBRD) listed some suggestions on how to ensure the successful implementation of an FOI measure, which if passed into law would make government records open to the public.

In a policy brief, the CPBRD suggested manpower and procedural adjustments in every government agency to deal with public requests for records, among other things. The government would need to provide financial and logistical support for this but could also charge a reasonable fee to cover the cost of reproducing the documents, it said.

Policy exemption

Congress has also to debate which areas could be justifiably exempted from the disclosure policy, such as national security-related information.

However, the CPBRD cautioned that “the mere existence of an FOI law does not guarantee easy access to government records. Government’s sincerity is key to an honest-to-goodness disclosure policy,” it said, suggesting that civil society and media would need to keep up the pressure for the law’s implementation.

The CPBRD’s position in policy briefs does not necessarily reflect that of the representatives, or of the House as an institution.

Gov’t info access

The CPBRD brief said there was merit in the contention of civil society organizations that an FOI law was urgently needed to ensure that people could access government information—no matter who was in power.

But the CPBRD also said that even if the FOI bill became law, another challenge lay in ensuring its proper implementation, based on a survey by David Banisar of the Freedom of Information Project of Privacy International.

It noted that in Zimbabwe, for example, the access provisions were not implemented despite the existence of an FOI law. In Albania and Bosnia, many stakeholders were unaware of the disclosure policy, and the law was only intended for limited use.

In Panama, the government enacted an FOI law and then established a rule that deliberately contradicted the law. There had also been instances where information was withheld not to protect the state, but simply to spare national security groups from controversy.

The CPBRD said that to increase the chances of a successful implementation of an FOI law in the country, civil society organizations must be involved in the process.

“The chances of changing the policy from limited to full disclosure is high when there is pressure from civil society,” it said.

For example, media and civil society groups in Paraguay were able to get the government to amend provisions in the FOI law that were seen as restricting freedom of speech.

In the Philippines, some lawmakers are trying to tack on a “right of reply” clause provision that would impose restrictions on media rights to the FOI bill.

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