De Lima made the pronouncement despite President Benigno Aquino III being lukewarm to the idea of certifying as urgent the current Freedom of Information (FOI) measure pending in Congress.
Speaking at the 5th Global Organization of Parliaments Against Corruption (GOPAC) in Pasay City, De Lima emphasized the importance of having a law that guarantees the public of free access to government records.
“Freedom of information is the most effective modality to prevent corruption… [and can] make government officials accountable to any wrongdoing,” De Lima said during the event held at the Philippine International Convention Center.
“A freedom of information act is very much within our reach,” she added.
This was in stark contrast to a pronouncement made by presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda on Thursday that Aquino has no plans on certifying as urgent the current FOI bill, a version of which has been passed in the Senate but remains on second reading at the House of Representatives.
“We want a healthy debate [first]. Whether [it’s] this Congress, or the next Congress, we want a healthy debate to take place. That’s what we want and in fairness to all constituents, let’s have a healthy debate… and let’s take it from there,” Lacierda said.
He also said that the public can be assured of government transparency even with the absence of a freedom of information law.
Last month, the Senate unanimously passed its version of the FOI bill. At the House, the measure has not yet made it past the period of sponsorship—the first step in the plenary discussions of the proposed legislation. Congress has three session days left or until Wednesday next week before the campaign period starts.
The FOI bill, which seeks to promote transparency in government transactions, was approved at the House committee level last November. It was transmitted to the plenary on December 11.
In her speech at the GOPAC conference, De Lima said “openness to information” can help empower the public, as proven by the late Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, a recipient of the 2000 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Good Governance and a former Naga City mayor.
“The emancipation of the citizenry has transformed a lethargic city into a booming one,” De Lima said, highlighting Robredo’s contribution to Naga City where he served for more than 18 years starting in 1988. While he was mayor, the city was named by Asiaweek magazine as one of the “Most Improved Cities in Asia” in 1999.
Robredo, whom De Lima described as having “personified good governance,” is recognized for his contributions to government transparency, one of which was requiring local government units (LGUs) to post details of their procurements, disbursements, and financial transactions in public places, including on the Internet through the LGUs’ respective websites.
To stress the benefits of having free access to government records, De Lima cited as an example the impeachment of former Chief Justice Renato Corona, who she said was ousted as the country’s top judge with the help of “innocuous” public documents that ultimately showed disparities in his declaration of wealth. Corona was convicted of failing to disclose around P200 million in peso and dollar deposits that he amassed while in public office.
“Victory against corruption could not have been any clearer than as had been achieved by our Congress [during the impeachment trial],” De Lima said.
De Lima also emphasized that for an FOI measure to work, there must be a “clear and uniform access to information” as well as a measure to protect whistleblowers.
“The Philippine society is poised to divest itself of the shackles of complacency and secrecy,” De Lima said.
The three-day GOPAC conference gathered some 500 delegates, including lawmakers and 12 heads of foreign parliaments from around the world, to discuss issues and practical approaches to combatting corruption.
It was the first time the conference was being held in Manila. The conference is co-hosted by the Philippine Senate and the Southeast Asian Parliamentarians Against Corruption, which is one of GOPAC’s regional arms.
Among the heads of parliament visiting the country to attend the conference are from Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Timor Leste, Egypt, Chad, Gabon, Kenya, Maldives, Morocco, Namibia and Botswana.
Organizers said these participating countries, like the Philippines, have all “made significant progress in the fight against corruption.” Additiional speakers for the event were anti-corruption advocates and leaders, including Transparency International’s Huguette Labelle and Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales. — KBK, GMA News