Monday, January 6

Last two minutes

Last week, President Benigno Aquino III claimed that the government has been rid of all but its “last bastions of corruption” in the “last two minutes” of his presidency. My opinion has always been this: although the President has certainly earned popular trust, his stand on the issue of transparency remains murky at best, and his efforts to open up the government to constructive scrutiny have been mediocre and halfhearted. In particular, the President has consistently shown a dislike for the press and failed to enact measures that would greatly increase confidence in the government in general (as opposed to his administration alone).

President Aquino has, on numerous occasions, chastised the press for its critical coverage. He has also asked it to put a positive spin on current affairs coverage. Speaking at the 25th anniversary of ABS-CBN primetime newscast TV Patrol, he said: “Kung gabi-gabing bad news ang hapunan ni Juan dela Cruz, talaga namang mangangayayat ang puso’t isip niya sa kawalan ng pag-asa.” Recently, he commended his critics to a higher power: “Bahala na si Lord sa inyo, busy ako.” What are we to make of a President who announces the near-eradication of corruption from his government, then complains about critical coverage? The pork barrel scam and the response to the devastation of Typhoon Yolanda are only two events that serve to remind us about what is left to be done in government.

As far as aversion to scrutiny goes, President Aquino walks the talk, too. The Freedom of Information Bill, which would greatly increase transparency in government, has so far languished in Congress. It can’t be because of a lethargic Legislature. After all, the Cybercrime Law and the impeachments of two appointees of his predecessor and sworn arch-nemesis all went through without a hitch. It started to move along in the last Congress, but ultimately died as Congress adjourned after taking on various shapes and forms during months of turbulent debate. There’s hope still that it will be passed in this Congress—Senate President Franklin Drilon expressed optimism it would happen by March—but one only knows how the bill will evolve as it makes its way through both Houses.

The FOI Bill would allow not just the media, but the public in general, to more freely and easily access government documents and data that should, in any case, lie in the public domain. This includes statements of public officials’ assets, bidding documents and contracts, and spending records. If President Aquino is so eager to tell us that he has cleaned up government, why won’t he allow us to see for ourselves? Any claim to good governance is strongest when it includes an invitation to scrutiny. A government cannot call itself clean then ask the public to take its word for it.

President Aquino has also been sluggish in his response to the sorry state of press freedom in this country. Despite being an avowed democracy, the Philippines remains the third most dangerous country in the world to practice journalism, according to the 2013 Impunity Index of the Community to Protect Journalists, which “spotlights countries where journalists are slain and the killers go free.” We’re worse off than places like Afghanistan and Mexico.

Yet Communications Secretary Sonny Coloma, in an admittedly na├»ve public-relations blunder, said the situation was “not that serious”—that is, if one discounts the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre, history’s single deadliest attack against journalists. Coloma quickly corrected himself in the press room, but the slip indicates how halfhearted this administration’s efforts have been. The record shows as much: the Maguindanao Massacre cases continue to creep forlornly through court, and notable killings, such as that of Palawan radio commentator Gerry Ortega, have yet to be resolved.

It still remains to be seen whether President Aquino has truly erased corruption from our government. Although most of his efforts so far have been notable—the BIR’s increased collection efforts and a sometimes politically costly continuing revamp of the Bureau of Customs come to mind—they are not enough. Government can only truly begin to be clean when the public can see for itself and not have to rely on his word.

There’s one thing the President is right about, though: the game is in its last two minutes, and the ball is in his court.

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Edited on 7 January to separate the second paragraph from the first.

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