Government offices craft their own policies to further restrict access to public documents – contrary to the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act
January 7, 2016 — It’s no secret that trying to access official government records is no easy task in the Philippines. But towards the end of President Benigno Aquino III’s term, obtaining copies of public documents has been painstakingly harder than ever.
Government agencies craft more restrictive regulations, which may not necessarily deny the public their right to information, but strongly discourage them to uphold it.
Case in point, Rappler’s requests for copies of the Statement of Assets and Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) of members of the House of Representatives have been repeatedly denied, with rules specific only to the House cited as reason.
House Secretary-General Marilyn B. Yap, who heads the office that archives the bureau’s SALNs, told Rappler in a letter they cannot issue a copy of the SALN, following Special Order No. 06-14.
Issued on May 22, 2014 by Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, the order assigns members to the House SALN Review and Compliance Committee. Among the functions of the committee is to set guidelines on public access to the SALNs of House members and employees.
Thus, as Yap wrote in the letter, their office cannot approve the request, as it will “pre-empt the action of the Committee.” She also noted that the rules the committee had created are still awaiting approval by plenary – more than a year after the order was released.
The Sec-Gen advised Rappler to request SALNs from individual House members but when we did, some lawmakers sent our requests back to Yap’s office.
No name search
Another public office that has set policies that discourage access to information is the Land Registration Authority (LRA).
What used to be a government office instrumental to cracking anomalies, which led to the impeachment of government bigwigs like former president and now Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada and former chief justice Renato Corona, LRA has become less transparent.
Following LRA Circular No. 19-2012, the agency has prohibited a “general name search” of land titles. LRA said this may be done only after a request from a court or an agency that “performs investigative functions” is approved.
This means that those making a request may access documents only if they are able to provide a specific title number.
LRA said a title number can be secured from the local government’s Assessor’s Office. But based on journalists’ experiences, this office – more often than not – protects the interests of seating public officials.
LRA employees told Rappler that the tighter measure was imposed soon after Corona’s impeachment.
Similarly, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has also banned the media from conducting a “name search” of companies. Journalists would now have to know the name of a public official’s companies and counter-check them with the SEC database.
Despite being in the digital age, some government offices still require request and response letters to be delivered personally, via mail or fax, instead of simply being emailed.
Most government agencies that Rappler (and probably other media) has dealt with refuse to transact online. Among other reasons, they said they are not connected to the Internet or that processing would be faster if a hard copy of a letter was instead given.
On average, requests are processed between two days to two weeks, but the backlog lies with delivery.
Response letters or available documents are not immediately sent to those who make requests because they are coursed through snail mail or the concerned government offices wait for them to be picked up – sometimes without notifying the requesting party.
In his message pertaining to the 2016 national budget, President Benigno Aquino III again urged Congress to pass the Freedom of Information Act, saying, “Transparency leads to a more responsive government.”
Aquino said this will ensure the “permanency” of the transparency policies that are already in place.
The law’s passage still looks bleak in the 16th Congress, however.
The Senate already passed its Senate Bill 1733 on third reading on March 10, 2014. But the House’s version has barely moved in a committee’s technical working group.