THE controversial Freedom of Information (FOI) celebrates five years of implementation in the Philippines.

A summit was held in Cebu City this Tuesday, Nov. 23, for the event with the theme “Revisiting, Reinventing  the Milestones, the Future.” The guest list was headed by Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) Secretary Jose Ruperto Martin Andanar. He delivered the program’s opening remarks. “It has been over three decades now that we have been advocating for the passage of the FOI law. A law encompassing all branches of the government to open itself up every nook and cranny to public scrutiny,  to improve trust and deter corrupt practices at all levels of governance,” Andanar said.

He disclosed that their journey wasn’t easy. “What we have gone through has been so far, tried and tested even after the calmest waters and strongest currents.  Today marks the culmination of the long, arduous fight that we keep battling.”

Andanar stressed that information can save lives and he had witnessed its power behind measures.

Ron P. Palo of the Kabayan Party List, chairperson of the Committee on Information at the House of Representatives, was also around for his message of support. “Freedom of Information is not a privilege but a right guaranteed no less by our Constitution. The passage of the FOI Law will empower and inform the Filipino citizenry to contribute in nation-building, good governance and public accountability,” the lawmaker explained.

Another message of support came from Undersecretary Ramon Cualoping III, director-general of the Philippine Information Office under the PCOO, who aired his belief that FOI is the cornerstone “and probably one of the greatest legacies of Pres. Duterte.” “This is a program that the Filipino people should take advantage of because this is where people have the chance to make the government accountable,” Cualoping told the audience.

Kristian R. Ablan, undersecretary and FOI program director, under PCOO, presented the FOI Report. It was in Nov. 25, 2016, when Malacanang hosted the official turnover of agency FOI manuals and the official launching of

The lean group of five people during that time, has now grown and expanded to three divisions and sub-units which formed part of the FOI Project Management Office.

Ablan also thanked their partners including the World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB), Dept. of Budget Management (DBM), Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) and others for backing the FOI up when they had “no mandate, no  budget and no people.”

“The real heroes in access to information are the citizens who hold the government to account, who without pay, actually make sure that government information is available for all,” Ablan stressed, adding that members of the Right to Know, Right Now (RKRN) Coalition as “the true FOI Champions.”

He recalled that it was in the 8th Congress, when the late Cong. Raul Roco, representing Camarines Sur in 1987, filed the first FOI bill. It aimed to implement the constitutional right to access government information.

It was then that many congressmen and senators filed their own versions in each Congress, according to Ablan.

In the 14th Congress, the FOI was closest to becoming a law in 2007-2010. “House Bill 3732 was championed by Representatives Erin Tanada of Quezon, Manila’s Bienvenido Abante, Risa Hontiveros of Akbayan, Joel Villanueva of CIBAC or the Citizens’ Battle Against Corruption, supported by civil society organizations and others,” Ablan said. The bill was approved by a technical working group “but unfortunately, it was not approved by the House due to a lack of quorum.”

Again it was not approved in the succeeding Congress because many congressmen were hesitant, explaining that their political enemies may use the gathered information against them.

Ablan said, there is nothing to fear about FOI. “There are safety nets, there are safeguards. We make sure that we comply with the data privacy and other exceptions.”

The FOI bill is still pending in Congress and Ablan hoped that the committee report would be submitted,  ratified and approved by the two chambers before the Christmas break. “It would be a pity if we don’t have an FOI Law in the Philippines,” he said.