By By Atty. Romulo P. Atencia
The right to Inormation
posted 14-Nov-2015  ·  
4,488 views  ·   0 comments  ·  

Our republican system of government is anchored on the delegation of power by the people to the State.  In this system, governmental agencies and institutions operate within the limits of the authority conferred by the people.  The citizenry can become prey to the whims and caprices of those to whom the power had been delegated if they are denied access to information on the inner workings of government.  The postulate of public office as a public trust, institutionalized in the Constitution (in Art. XI, Sec. 1) to protect the people from abuse of governmental power, would be mere empty words if access to such information of public concern is denied, except under limitations prescribed by implementing legislation adopted pursuant to the Constitution.

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The people’s right to information is provided in Section 7, Article III of the Constitution, which reads: “Sec. 7. The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized. Access to official records, and to documents, and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law. The people’s constitutional right to information is intertwined with the government’s constitutional duty of full public disclosure of all transactions involving public interest.  Section 28, Article II of the Constitution declares the State policy of full transparency in all transactions involving public interest, to wit: “Sec. 28. 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 foregoing constitutional provisions seek to promote transparency in policy-making and in the operations of the government, as well as provide the people sufficient information to exercise effectively other constitutional rights. They are also essential to hold public officials “at all times x xx accountable to the people,” for unless citizens have the proper information, they cannot hold public officials accountable for anything. Armed with the right information, citizens can participate in public discussions leading to the formulation of government policies and their effective implementation. An informed citizenry is essential to the existence and proper functioning of any democracy. This constitutional provision guarantees a general right - the right to information on matters of "public concern" and, as an accessory thereto, the right of access to "official records" and the like. The right to information is an essential premise of a meaningful right to speech and expression.  It goes hand-in-hand with the constitutional policies of full public disclosure and honesty in the public service. It is meant to enhance the widening role of the citizenry in governmental decision-making as well as in checking abuse in government.

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Like all the constitutional guarantees, the right to information is not absolute.  To be covered by the right to information, the information sought must meet the threshold requirement that it be a matter of public concern.  However, “public concern” like “public interest” embraces a broad spectrum of subjects which the public may want to know, either because these directly affect their lives, or simply because such matters naturally arouse the interest of an ordinary citizen. Thus, the people's right to information is limited to "matters of public concern", and is further "subject to such limitations as may be provided by law." Similarly, the State's policy of full disclosure is limited to "transactions involving public interest", and is "subject to reasonable conditions prescribed by law."  In a case decided in 1988, the Supreme Court underscored the importance both of the constitutional guarantee of free speech and the reality that there are fundamental and equally important public interests which need on occasion to be balanced against and accommodated with one and the other. For instance, the right to information oftentimes lock horns with the equally dominant freedom of speech and of expression. Although both are among the more aggressive freedoms, both are not absolute and need on occasion to be adjusted to and accommodated with the requirements of equally important public interests. One of these fundamental public interests is the maintenance of the integrity and orderly functioning of the administration of justice. There is no antinomy between free expression and the integrity of the system of administering justice. For the protection and maintenance of the right to information and of freedom of expression itself can be secured only within the context of a functioning and orderly system of dispensing justice.

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Be that as it may, the source of all governmental authority, the people, must still reign supreme. The orderly functioning of government and of dispensing justice both are sorry excuses for government officials or judges to keep official acts and proceedings secret and exempt from public scrutiny. Fair reports of judicial proceedings have long been allowed in our country. In a case decided by our Supreme Court a hundred years ago, it quoted with approval American decisions holding that the  proceedings of courts of justice should be “universally  known”, although the publication of such proceedings may be to the disadvantage of the  particular individual concerned. The general advantage to the country in having these proceedings made public “more than  counterbalances” the inconveniences to the private persons whose conduct may be the subject of such proceedings. The foundation of the right of the public to know what is going on in the courts is not the fact that the public, or a portion of it, is curious, or that what is going on in the court is news, or would be interesting, or would furnish topics of conversation. It simply is that the public has a right to know whether a public officer is properly performing his duty.  That is one of the reasons why decisions of the Supreme Court are published in books and, now, are available in the internet.

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How about court records? The term "judicial record" or "court record" does not only refer to the orders, judgment or verdict of the courts. It comprises the official collection of all papers, exhibits and pleadings filed by the parties, all processes issued and returns made thereon, appearances, and word-for-word testimony which took place during the trial and which are in the possession, custody, or control of the judiciary or of the courts for purposes of rendering court decisions. Decisions and opinions of a court are of course matters of public concern or interest for these are the authorized expositions and interpretations of the laws, binding upon all citizens, of which every citizen is charged with knowledge. Justice thus requires that all should have free access to the opinions of judges and justices, and it would be against sound public policy to prevent, suppress or keep the knowledge of these from the public. 


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