Thursday, May 8, 2014

Freedom OF and FROM the Press

As I explained to my barber, I learned early in life that when I took a position on certain issues, I always made sure that I had looked at all the angles and/or sides.

In argumentation and debates, when I took the affirmative side on a proposition, my research was to look not only for proofs in support of it, but also for the best arguments and evidence against my side.

Of course, citing facts and figures was always my favorite and most reliable offensive and defensive weapons. One cannot argue against facts. Figures do not tell a lie and numbers tell better stories.  This is, of course, if the said facts and figures are verified and validated.

Things become a little complicated when facts are questioned and misinterpreted.  This explains the variance in news reporting and views or opinions. They usually reflect the ideological or personal biases and prejudices of the networks in the case of TV or the publishers, columnists, and editors in the case of newspapers.

In the Philippines, I know which newspapers and columns to read if I want to know the views of those who hate or love PNoy and the Aquino family.  The same is true vis-à-vis the Marcos family. It is fascinating how facts are twisted to suit the arguments or interpretation of each side.

In the United States, like most Americans including my barber, I know the TV network and publications that support the conservative cause and usually reflect an Anti-Obama line.  I am familiar with the network and publications that usually reflect progressive views as well as those we could consider objective, reliable, and fair.

The truth is, there is this innate and unlimited thirst and hunger to acquire information, data, and news to the extent that sometimes “rumors” become factual news to the agreeing ears.

In democracies like the United States and the Philippines, freedom of information is guaranteed by their Constitutions.  In fact, in the case of the former, a Freedom of Information (FOI) law has been in place since its enactment on July 4, 1966, and made effective one year later.  Only a few days ago, the U.S. Congress passed the Data Transparency and Accountability Act, which is now in the hands of President Obama for signature.

Subject to certain exceptions, FOI provides a process that guarantees and enforces both constitutional and inherent rights of American citizens to have access to government information. Basically, it is an attempt to effectively deal with requests for government records.

The DATA Transparency and Accountability Act addresses rampant waste and fraud in government. It establishes common data standards and builds the infrastructure needed to standardize and publish the federal spending data especially on contracts, loans, and grants. It also strives to improve the quality of federal spending data by requiring information to be made publicly available in a standardized, downloadable, and machine-readable format on a single website,

In the Philippines, the Constitution is very specific. It included the right to information in Article III, the Bill of Rights. Section 7 states, “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.” This, in fact, makes it self-executing.

There is neither an FOI law nor a DATA Transparency and Accountability statute in the Philippines yet.  The Senate version of the FOI bill sponsored by Senator Grace Poe has been passed. It is not a priority bill in the House but Speaker Belmonte committed to pass it before his term ends – even offering to be executed if not done.

So we will not have an FOI law until 2016.  I hope that the equivalent DATA Transparency and Accountability Act would also be pushed and passed by then.

Citizens are encouraged to exercise this right to information.  The truth is, even under current conditions, there are voluminous files of information, data, and news that are available online or offline everyday.  It would take sometime to retrieve, sort, read, and store the info you want or defer for reading.

This includes government records. Visit the Official Gazette, the websites of all the government agencies (Executive, Congress, Supreme Court, Constitutional Bodies, etc.) and of every public official that uploaded a website.  You will have all the data, information, knowledge, and education that you could never have imagined, I assure you.

The right to information is already with us.  We are just not exercising it. It takes vigilance and, of course, plenty of our precious time even to exercise it.

I read the provisions of the proposed FOI bill as passed by the Senate. I also read what the House is considering.  While they define the process to exercise one’s right to access government records, they also enumerate numerous exemptions as to what records we may obtain. 

In short, this is the law that will provide the “limitations” to the exercise of this Constitutional right.

There is concern that the right could be abused.  Critics and opponents of the government, even from the Press, could use it for political purposes. In a world where “demolition jobs” have become part and parcel of PR programs, government officials could be subjected to unnecessary harassment.

Any information obtained through the process could be interpreted to “demolish” the reputation of a public celebrity.

As the late Actress/Princess Grace Kelly once said, “while there is protection of the Freedom OF the Press, what about Freedom FROM the Press?”

Like all rights, this one is subject to abuse.  As in all abuses, there are legal remedies!

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