The Right to Know
29th October 2013 by Reuben Levermore, Manila | 2 Comments
The Right to Know
I have followed with interest in recent months the public discussion on the Freedom of Information Bill that is currently being considered by the Philippine Congress. Aspects of New Zealand’s experience with an Official Information Act, an early model of freedom of information legislation, may be of some relevance as the House of Representatives and the Senate consider the passage of this Bill. This was a topic that I discussed recently during a courtesy call on Senator Grace Poe, who is the sponsor of the Bill.
Passed into law in 1982, the ‘O.I.A’ as it is dubbed, enables the public to request information from government departments and Ministers. Upon receiving a request, the recipient must respond to the request within 20 working days.
The Act serves to make transparent to the public the workings of government. And although our experience shows that journalists make frequent use of the OIA in order to report on issues of the day, so too does the general public.
An initial examination of both the OIA and the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill shows many similarities, including the guiding principles and the purpose of the legislation.
For those in the Philippines that fear the FOI Bill may compromise the interests of the country or individuals, our experience has shown that the grounds for withholding information under the OIA Act can work to ensure an appropriate balance between open government and legitimate privacy concerns. Information may be withheld if it would prejudice the national security or international relations of the Government of New Zealand; if it would damage seriously the economy of New Zealand; or it if would endanger the safety of any person.
Of course, it is important to acknowledge that there is an administrative cost associated with servicing public requests for information. In some cases, and in particular for excessive requests, a department or Minister may charge for the supply of official information under the Act, so long as the charge is reasonable with regard to the cost of the labour and materials involved in making the information available.
Public faith in the OIA also requires enforcement of the Act’s provisions. In New Zealand’s case, members of the public dissatisfied with decisions to withhold documents, or passages within documents, can lodge a complaint with the Ombudsman. The Ombudsmen can investigate and review a decision to withhold information. Last year, the annual report of the Ombudsman revealed that there were 1236 complaints received in relation to the OIA.
Among the stated purposes of the OIA are to “promote the accountability of Ministers and officials”. In recent times, OIA requests have been used to shine a light on the policy making process and on government spending, subjecting it to judgment in the court of public opinion. In New Zealand, the public has sought details for spending by government departments and Ministerial offices, and justifications of expenditure are often required as a result. This merely recognises that officials and Government leaders are accountable for the proper spending of public funds.
New Zealand’s Official Information Act has withstood use for over 30 years now. Although there are some costs incurred in enabling public access to official information, these are the costs we accept in order to better enable public confidence in our democracy. In the internet age, when information is more and more easily available, freedom of information legislation can help government to keep in step with society’s expectations.
Although the New Zealand Embassy does not take a formal position on the Freedom of Information Bill, we are pleased in this and other areas to share our own experiences should these be helpful to Philippine decision-makers. We will continue to follow with close interest the progress of the FOI Bill.