Social change and the crisis of information

By Luis V. Teodoro | Posted on 17-12-2012

INFORMATION IS what the Reproductive Health (RH) and Freedom of Information (FOI) bills are all about. The first would provide women with information on their own bodies—which for too many Filipinos apparently remains terra incognita even into their adulthood—and couples with the information they need that would enable them to plan their families. The second would make government-held information available to the public as a matter of right and in furtherance of State transparency and accountability.

Both have aroused the most violent opposition, although neither is particularly revolutionary, and should have long ago been part of the country’s laws. Despite the claim that the RH bill would encourage abortion, it is more likely to discourage it by making the information that would prevent unwanted pregnancies available. It does contain a provision mandating State care for the victims of back-alley, wire-hanger abortions those opposed to it, who apparently think that the Filipino poor have the morals of rabbits, believe would further encourage promiscuity, unwanted pregnancies, and hence, abortions—but which merely makes the well being its citizens a State responsibility.

In countries like the United States, abortion on demand is available, especially in the case of rape and incest, or if giving birth would endanger the mother’s life. But the Philippine RH bill, which seems likely to pass Congress before it goes into recess for the holidays, reiterates that abortion is illegal no matter what the circumstances—whether the result of rape or incest, for example—that led to the unwanted pregnancy are, or whatever the impact on the mother’s health.

For its part, the version of the FOI bill that’s still up for discussion in the House plenary falls below the standards to which the United Nations encourages compliance. It contains a provision that enshrines executive privilege in law, and another exempting from public access information on “national security”—a particularly contentious phrase in this country because of its experience with authoritarian rule— and leaves it to the President to declare as an exception any information that in his opinion falls under that category.

Neither does the FOI bill as submitted to the House contain any sunshine provision that would automatically make information exempt from public scrutiny available after a specific period. Instead, the bill leaves such a declaration to the President’s discretion.

For all these deficiencies, however, opposition to the FOI bill remains strong in the House of Representatives, and its fate is still uncertain as Dec. 22, when Congress adjourns for the holiday recess, approaches. Although the RH bill seems likely to pass, the scope and power of the opposition to it as in the FOI bill were nevertheless as indicative of the mindset among the country’s power elite that regards information as dangerous, and looks at the citizenry as either immature, of too limited a morality, or likely to abuse its own freedoms to be worthy of the information that’s readily available to the powerful and privileged.

One can detect in the hostility to an FOI act not only the fear that the media would be even more powerful as President Benigno Aquino III has repeatedly implied in his public utterances, and as some congressmen have openly claimed. Implicit in that fear is fear of citizenry empowerment as well. What is so critical about the media, particularly the news media, that makes governments suspicious of the press, is their capacity to provide the public with, among others, the information it needs on the problems and issues of governance, what they mean, and, either directly or indirectly, what the possible solutions are. Without the access to the public they serve that enables them to shape opinion and influence decision-making, the media by themselves have no power, the power to change things being ultimately resident in the citizenry.

Social change is after all possible only when the on-the-ground realities of poverty and injustice are in conjunction with the public’s consciousness of the roots and causes of those realities. It’s an awareness that necessarily leads to the exploration of possible solutions. The Philippine experience demonstrates that information is crucial in the shaping of the predisposition for change and citizen openness to the means as to how it may be achieved. Its absence—what in effect constitutes a crisis of information—is what has made social change in the Philippines problematic.

Congressmen and senators as well as Presidents may not articulate the reasons for their hostility to public empowerment through information in these terms. But even if unarticulated, their sense of that danger, implicit in their current resistance to either the RH or FOI bill, helps explain why even the most minor and limited attempts to make information available in this country is met with hostility and opposition in this country. The RH bill will not end poverty, and neither will an FOI act. But they can begin a process that can lead to enhanced citizen awareness of the need for change.

The resistance to the RH and FOI bills is not so much addressed to these particular initiatives as it is to the general principle that any information that would lead to citizen awareness of the roots of the country’s problems and how to address them could lead to citizen initiatives to bring about the changes the Philippine elite has been resisting for over a hundred years. The crisis of information is not only an aspect of the Philippine social and political crisis; it is also crucial to its persistence.

Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he teaches journalism. He is the deputy director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility. He writes a weekly column for the BusinessWorld.