Thursday, August 10, 2006

Is the Arroyo administration hiding cases of corruption and abuse and avoiding accountability to the people?

In the dark

Last updated 00:58am (Mla time) 08/08/2006
Published on Page A10 of the August 8, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

THE Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration, since the "Hello Garci" scandal broke, has kept government officials and ordinary citizens in the dark on controversial cases that are of national concern. It has adopted a policy of untruthfulness, obfuscation and evasion to block at every turn the attempts of officials and citizens to know the truth.

In the "Hello Garci" scandal, the administration apparently helped former Election Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano to hide either here or abroad, to avoid being summoned by a Senate investigating committee. After many months of hiding, Garcillano surfaced and appeared before the Senate committee, but he succeeded in keeping to himself any information that would have incriminated him and President Arroyo.

A Senate inquiry into the alleged misuse of the Department of Agriculture's P728-million fertilizer fund during the 2004 presidential election failed to elicit any information when the secretaries of agriculture, budget, agrarian reform and trade begged off the hearing, invoking Executive Order No. 464. Three former top officials, including former Agriculture Undersecretary Jocelyn Bolante, who had key roles in the release of the fund, simply didn't show up.

Bolante was later discovered to have left the country, and it was only recently that he turned up in Los Angeles where he was detained for entering the United States with an expired visa. Strangely, he has applied for asylum in the United States, claiming that the New People's Army was gunning after him, a claim that the NPA subsequently denied. The commissioners of the Commission on Elections, headed by Chair Benjamin Abalos, are resisting investigation of the P1.3-billion Mega Pacific election computerization deal that has been voided by the Supreme Court. They say that the commissioners, who can only be removed by impeachment, may only be investigated after they are impeached.

The Senate oversight committee on labor and employment is asking where the P8.1-billion fund of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (Owwa) is and why the President could allocate only P150 million to repatriate the overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) from Lebanon. Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita and seven other top officials on Aug. 1 snubbed a Senate inquiry into the "piecemeal" evacuation of OFWs and the status of the Owwa fund.

Article III, Section 7 of the Constitution says that "the right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized." Article II, Section 28 says that "subject to reasonable conditions prescribed by law, the state adopts and implements a policy of full public disclosure of all its transactions involving public interest."

The "Hello Garci" scandal, the P728-million fertilizer scandal, the P1.3-billion election computerization deal and the P8.1-billion Owwa fund are all matters involving public interest, but the Arroyo administration is preventing the people, through their duly elected representatives, from knowing the truth about them.

The right of access to information rests on the premise that it is an informed and critical public opinion that alone can protect the values of a democratic government. The provisions on the right to information were inserted by the 1986 Constitutional Commission as a reaction to the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship's practice of withholding data from the public whenever such data contradicted government policies. Now, it appears, we are back to the Marcos practice of withholding vital information from the public and its representatives.

Former US President Jimmy Carter, who set up the Carter Center Access to Information Project, said that "access to information is a crucial element in the effort to reduce corruption, increase accountability and deepen trust among citizens and their governments." Laura Neuman, who edited a paper of the center on access to information, said: "Knowledge is power, and transparency is the remedy to the darkness under which corruption and abuse thrives. Democracy depends on a knowledgeable citizenry whose access to a broad range of information enables them to participate fully in public life, help determine priorities for public spending, receive equal access to justice and hold their public officials accountable."

Here, the policy is lack of transparency, evasion and subterfuge to avoid the giving of information and the disclosure of the truth. In adopting this policy, is the Arroyo administration hiding cases of corruption and abuse and avoiding accountability to the people?

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