By Karol Ilagan/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism
IS FREEDOM of information one of the casualties of Covid-19?
Since April, the staff of the Digital News Exchange (DNX), a community-based news site in Bacolod City, has had zero success in getting a response to its requests for information on Covid-19-related procurement and cash aid.
They’re not the only ones. Journalists around the country say both national and local government agencies have either delayed or denied their information requests. Officials, they said, were particularly reluctant to release information that would hold them accountable for their spending.
So far, only one in 10 of the Covid-19 requests filed in the government’s eFOI portal between March 13 and May 27, 2020 has been granted. Most of these requests were for information on Covid-19 spending and financial assistance, according to data from the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), the manager of the eFOI platform where information requests from national government agencies in the executive branch are filed.
The PCOO has so far received 1,332 requests from journalists and the public for Covid-19-related information. More than half of those requests are still being processed while about a third have been denied supposedly because they were lodged in the wrong agency, the requester did not provide his/her complete details, or the information is already available online. (See Charts 1 and 2.)
Most of the denials were requests for Covid-19 spending or Social Amelioration Program (SAP) data from the Departments of Social Welfare and Development, Labor and Employment, Interior and Local Government, and Budget and Management. The PCOO refused to entertain these requests; instead it advised requestors to ask their local government unit or call a DSWD hotline number. (See Table 1 below.)
Like many journalists around the country, DNX was particularly interested in how funds allocated for Covid-19 relief have been spent. It is working on a project called Money Watch to monitor how money from Bacolod City’s P100-million calamity fund was allocated.
It’s been eight weeks since the DNX staff sent the city government and its Department of Social Services and Development a request for data on pandemic-related spending. But up to now, they have not heard back.
City officials were not always so stingy with information. In mid-March, as the lockdown started, they responded promptly when DNX reporters asked about Covid-19 preparations. This positive response prompted DNX reporters to forego filing formal information requests for the time being. They also feared that formal requests would be processed only when the quarantine was already over. But in April, when DNX asked for spending details, city officials were no longer as open as before. “Finding sources is as difficult as catching a greased pig let loose,” said Julius Mariveles, DNX’s executive editor.
Like city officials, barangay officials, who are responsible for releasing cash subsidies, delivering relief goods, and keeping the peace in their communities, were also unwilling to give information. Mariveles says being “out on the field” has become a common excuse for these officials’ inability to provide data.
DNX has so far released just one Money Watch story. It revealed discrepancies in the number of targeted and actual beneficiaries of the city’s Covid-19 financial assistance, as well as the lack of reports from several barangays.
The national government has allocated at least P500 billion to address the impact of the pandemic that has killed nearly a thousand Filipinos and placed millions out of work because of the lockdown. This amount does not include emergency funds that local governments can tap in addition to any revenue and savings that they may also decide to use for Covid-19-related expenses.
DNX’s small team of four reporters tried their best to report on how Bacolod apportioned public funds for coronavirus projects. But they were at their wit’s end: With limited access to data and sources plus pandemic-related constraints on field reporting, there was only so much they could do.
In Metro Manila, Cebu, and other parts of the country, journalists who shared their experiences with PCIJ encountered varying levels of difficulty, depending on the type of information they were requesting. While information about the national government’s plan and budget to fight the virus are readily available online, getting more detailed information on how the plans are being implemented and the money spent is another story.
Obtaining details about Covid-19 spending at the local level has been especially difficult. Unlike frontline agencies at the national level, local governments do not proactively publish data on their websites. Moreover, with press briefings now online, officials and their PR staff often screen questions from the media, making it harder for reporters to demand answers.
Since March, when government offices were wholly or partly closed, most routine requests for information have not been processed. The Philippines is among many governments in the world that had to suspend the processing of freedom-of-information or FOI requests because of the pandemic.
The PCOO has so far issued four advisories notifying offices in the executive branch of the suspension of FOI processing. The advisories apply only to agencies covered by Executive Order 2, s. 2016, which laid out the Duterte administration’s FOI guidelines.
On June 1, PCOO lifted the suspension of FOI processing, except in areas under Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ). But it said agencies with sufficient capacity can go ahead and process FOI requests despite quarantine regulations.
The other branches of government – Congress, the judiciary and local governments – were not covered by the suspension, but their responses to information requests were understandably slowed down because offices have not been in full operation for at least 10 weeks. Although the ECQ in Metro Manila was lifted on June 1, government offices still follow alternative work arrangements, which means shortened hours or suspension of certain services.
These measures have exacerbated delays in the release of information crucial for holding government accountable. For example, for over a year now, PCIJ’s longstanding request for the statements of assets of national government officials has been pending because the Office of the Ombudsman has yet to issue guidelines for releasing such documents.
To be sure, a number of national agencies, particularly those at the frontlines of Covid-19 response, have published records proactively, without the need for a formal information request. Some departments, despite operating on a skeleton staff, continue to accept and respond to requests by email.
But things were better last year. From October 2018 to September 2019, the PCOO received 18,036 eFOI requests or an average of 347 requests per week. Nearly half of these requests were granted. During the ongoing quarantine until May 27, an average of 318 requests were lodged in the eFOI portal every week but the success rate was just 17 percent.
According to Republic Act 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, public-records requests must be addressed within 15 working days. Executive Order 2, s. 2016 gave executive agencies more time — not longer than 20 business days — to respond to such requests.
With the lockdown, however, government agencies could not meet these deadlines. PCOO Assistant Secretary Kristian R. Ablan says PCOO suspended the required processing time because of the “justifiable concerns” of FOI officers that they may be held liable if they fail to address requests within the prescribed period.
FOI officers working from home said they lacked internet connection, office equipment such as laptop computers and scanners and digital copies of files. They also found it difficult to coordinate remotely with record custodians.
The health and safety of the FOI officers were also factored in. “We didn’t want to put their health at risk during ECQ,” he says.
Jenina Joy Chavez, co-convener of the Right to Know, Right Now!Coalition (R2KRN), acknowledged these difficulties. Speaking at an online forum on May 27, she said suspending FOI operations may be necessary, but she also asked whether the government has done anything to help agencies respond to information requests even during a lockdown.
“Whether or not we’re in quarantine, the importance of the right to information remains the same,” said Chavez. During the quarantine, citizens yielded or entrusted power and resources to government, she said. Transparency measures are needed so the public is able to seek accountability and protection.
On March 29, R2KRN asked the inter-agency task force and departments implementing the government’s Covid-19 action plan for a copy of the plans and structure of the task force as well as for specific sets of documents and data held by the departments of health, social welfare, agriculture, labor, and budget, and the Philippine Government Electronic Procurement System.
The status of this request is being published online and updated weekly by the coalition members, including PCIJ. Most of the information requested has been partially fulfilled, but most of the releases are in PDFs, not in open-data or spreadsheet format that make the numbers easier to analyze.
R2KRN publishes weekly reports on the quality of information being provided by frontline agencies. Its May 5 report said that the health department is perhaps the only government agency that collects, processes, posts, and updates information on a regular basis.
The coalition also raised questions about the completeness of the data. For instance, the daily Covid-19 case counts do not give a full picture of how the virus is spreading. Moreover, only 1,782 of more than 23,000 registered health facilities have submitted details on health capacity and needs. “With incomplete information, it is not clear how capable the health system really is to deal with the Covid-19 emergency,” R2KRN said.
In its May 12 report, R2KRN noted the sparse data released by the DSWD’s Disaster Response Operations Monitoring and Information Center (DROMIC), where updates on Covid-19 assistance are posted.
The DROMIC provides data broken down by province and city, but does not say how many families have received assistance. It also does not disaggregate new from cumulative data, which would have been helpful in determining the rate of response by government and private entities.
The attempt to publish the list of SAP beneficiaries was commendable, said R2KRN.
However, most of the links are down. The list is also partial and only includes areas that have reports from the DSWD’s field offices. Information can be downloaded but only as PDFs.
Ryan Macasero, Rappler’s Cebu Bureau reporter, says he has been able to obtain Covid-19-related information but the process has become more laborious. Getting answers from officials, who may only be reached through virtual press briefings or call and chat, has taken more time and effort.
“It makes their lives easier, but our jobs more difficult,” he says.
What seems to work, Macasero says, is when many reporters ask the same question.
“We back each other up in the agencies’/office’s official media group chats and say we have the same question to try to emphasize that it’s important they answer us regarding these questions, because it’s information the public needs to know.” –With additional research by Arjay Guarino, PCIJ, June 2020