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Supreme Court ruling upholding presidential advisor's "executive privilege" a threat to freedom of information, says CMFR

(CMFR/IFEX) - The following is an 11 September 2008 CMFR statement, commenting on a recent decision by the Supreme Court regarding a National Broadband Network (NBN) deal and questions posed to a presidential advisor:

Assault on the public's right to know

The Supreme Court's affirmation of its March 25 decision in favor of executive privilege undermines the public interest function of the press to provide information to a citizenry that has a right to it on matters of public concern. Even more dangerously it also erodes the democratic imperative of transparency in governance.

By expanding the coverage of executive privilege to include communications authored or solicited and received by a presidential advisor, in this case then National Economic and Development Authority Director General Romulo Neri, the Court has legitimized government secrecy to an extent yet to be established by practice.

The Court also affirmed that executive privilege includes information on presidential decisions as well as the materials that were discussed prior to those decisions, thus enabling the president and/or his/her advisers to use executive privilege to conceal information on corruption and other forms of official wrongdoing from the Senate, the press and the public.

The impact on the public's right to know and on the basic responsibility of the press to provide such information is obvious. But it is equally relevant to the health and future of democracy. If no information can be obtained because of executive privilege, then no information vital to the exercise of the sovereign right of the people in a democracy to decide on policy and other governance issues can be made available.

Oddly in conflict with the impending passage of a bill on public and press access to government information, the decision also strikes at the heart of the imperative for transparency in the affairs of a government in which corruption has so metastasized that it now afflicts it from top to bottom. Vital in the fight against corruption, transparency is the only weapon available to citizens to assure honesty in governance. By in effect providing the legal basis for the de facto reversal of that policy, the court has made that fight even more difficult and problematic.

To meet the challenge posed by the expansion of executive privilege, journalists will have to exert greater efforts to get at the truth of government transactions, policies and actions. As in the dying days of the Marcos regime, the need of the hour is for a journalism firmly committed to the truth- telling necessary in a democracy and vital to a sovereign people's capacity to hold governments accountable. We call on our colleagues in the press to transcend, through practice that is both vigilant as well as responsible, the limits the Supreme Court decision has imposed on the public's right to information.

For further information on the role of Neri in the NBN deal (and the implication of journalist Juliet Labog Javellana who was summoned in the case), see: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/86838

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