Freedom of Information is not just about media
SAN FRANCISCO — President Benigno Aquino III has said he supports the Freedom of Information bill, which just took a small step forward this week with the approval of the House committee on public information.
But it’s clear that Aquino also has reservations about the FOI bill, and these concerns appear to be based on a misconception: He thinks Freedom of Information is all about media.
This was evident in some of his remarks focused on how FOI could help journalists.
In a speech last year, he said, “This right to know carries with it responsibilities – to use the information available in context; to present facts fairly; and to be conscious of some elements who may want to use the information not to inform the public, but to, rather, inflame them, ”Giving media more access to information, he continued, “does not mean that we want media to be lapdogs of government; at the same time, media shouldn’t allow themselves to be used as attack dogs either.”
More recently, Aquino even endorsed the controversial “right of reply” provision, which could essentially serve to intimidate and hamper media and give people in power even more power to suppress critics.
As he told the Philippine Daily Inquirer, “If two sides of a story are reported, if the details of every news are accurate and the freedom of all Filipinos to form their own opinion is valued, then any journalist has nothing to worry about, isn’t it?”
Many of my Philippine media friends and colleagues will no doubt have a problem with that statement since most them believe in covering not just two, but many sides of every story.
It’s also hard to argue with some of the issues the president has raised in connection with the state of the Philippine media, including corruption and fairness. Many Filipino journalists I know share those concerns.
But the more important point is this: Freedom of Information is not just about journalists and journalism.
It says so at the beginning of the bill authored by Rep. Erin Tañada: “The State recognizes the right of the people to information on matters of public concern.” It does not say “the right of the media.”
Representative Tañada reiterated this to me during his recent visit to California, saying that point “is much misunderstood.”
The bill “is more of a citizen’s right to freedom of information and not the media,” he told me in an email shortly before flying back to Manila to make another attempt to save the bill.
“The constitutional provision on the Right to Information did not mention it as a media right but a citizen’s right,” he added.
The Philippines must define its own path on this issue.
But the country can learn a lot from the American experience when it comes to Freedom of Information. The US law, which was passed in 1966, is called the Freedom of Information Act, or the FOIA.
It’s even become a verb, ‘Foya.’
US journalists would typically say, ‘I’m going to Foya that document,” or ‘We can Foya the emails, letters and other communications on this subject.’ To be sure, the law has helped many newspapers and other media organizations in reporting on government.
But in fact, any person, including US citizens, foreign nationals, organizations, universities, businesses and state and local governments, can file a FOIA request.
The respected National Security Archives has a comprehensive list of FOIA successes, involving both media and non-media groups, on its website.
A few examples:
In April 2004, the Natural Resources Defense Council, using internal documents obtained through the FOIA, found out that while the Environmental Protection Agency had concluded that some kinds of rat poison posed a risk to children, the rat poison makers were given broad access to make changes in documents describing the risks.
In December 2005, the Migration Policy Institute of New York University Law School used data obtained through a FOIA to show that thousands of people accused by the Dept. of Homeland Security of being immigration violators were innocent.
In 2005, the Associated Press used FOIA documents to show that many small businesses who received government loans meant to help out those who were affected by the September 11 terrorist attacks didn’t need the help.
The AP studied documents on how $5 billion in loans were designated, and found that some of the money went to a South Dakota country radio station, a dog boutique in Utah and some Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway franchises that didn’t even know they were getting terrorism-recover related loans.
In a few cases, individuals were able to use the Freedom of Information Act to uncover important information.
In 2001, a historian at the National Security Archive reported that U.S. intelligence officers “deliberately skewed” evidence to make it appear that North Vietnamese ships attacked US destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964. False reporting on the incident eventually led to the escalation of the Vietnam War.
In 2006, an independent transportation consultant, curious about New York’s taxi accident rates, found out, with the help of FOIA data, that passengers in New York taxis are twice as likely to be hurt in accidents as passengers in private cars because taxi riders usually don’t wear seat belts and can be injured by cab partitions.
Another point needs to be highlighted: Freedom of Information is not just about scandals and exposing secrets of people in power. It can also be about helping government and policy makers uncover problems.
That’s what happened in 2005 when the Richmond Times-Dispatch, using FOIA documents to review disciplinary reports and concluded that up to 75 percent of the cells in the Richmond City jail may have broken locks.
The paper looked into the problem after an escaped inmate killed another prisoner. As a result of the report, authorities found out that there was indeed a problem. They hired a locksmith to fix the broken locks.
A Freedom of Information law will not magically fix all problems in government. But it can help expand and strengthen Philippine democracy,
Yes, it can certainly help journalists do their jobs. But it’s much more than that.