COVID-19 Op-ed

A Contextual Right to Know: Transparency in the time of Covid-19

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George Mitchell Silva GuerreroJuris Doctor
(Candidate), College of Law, University of the
Philippines.
Former Vice Chair of the Philippine Law
Journal Editorial Board.
Editor, Institute of
International Legal Studies, University of the Philippines Law
Center

Transparency is the cornerstone of every liberal democracy.
Knowledge on matters of state affairs enables citizens to participate in
nation-building, to hold government to account, and to guide their
decision-making. While the right to know is already valuable under ordinary
circumstances, it takes on a completely different level of significance
during a global pandemic—when everyone lives under a cloud of great
uncertainty. In the midst of a public health emergency, what, when, and how
the state communicates information to the public would affect public
confidence and reaction to government policy.In the Philippines, this
entitlement to transparency is constitutionally entrenched in the Bill of
Rights. The charter provides, “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.” (Constitution art. III, § 7.). This fundamental
right is implemented in the Executive Branch by Executive Order No. 2 (2016).
Moreover, the principle has been invoked in caselaw on multiple occasions
(See, e.g., Legaspi v. Civil Service Commission ;
Valmonte v. Belmonte ; Gonzales v. Narvasa ).The Philippine Government, for
the most part, has been actively sharing information with the public. In the
course of Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) imposed on the island of Luzon,
the President’s midnight addresses have become a fixture. Daily tallies of
confirmed coronavirus cases, as well as recoveries and fatalities, are
reported. State agencies, like the Department of Health and the University of
the Philippines, have online portals with a more detailed presentation of
facts and figures. Reports on capacity-building improvements are also
routinely made. On that score, the state has been more than compliant with
the transparency requirement.The Government has been communicating, if
vaguely, the next steps it would take on quarantine policies, economic
recovery, and enforcement of regulations. For example, presidential
surrogates have been indicating a lifting of the ECQ and proposing the
reopening of businesses. These propositions are, of course, linked to
improvements in numbers both of infection containment and health
infrastructure capacity.What is sorely missing, however, in this public
discussion is context. No performance indicators are mentioned which would
trigger the policy shift. Again, while the state’s sharing of raw data is
admirable, it would appear to be nothing more than a data dump sans
context.Without the public knowing what numbers indicate that the curve has
“flattened”, how could it feel confident that reopening businesses would be a
good idea? While people may know that bed capacity, public health workforce,
and personal protective equipment stocks are increasing, without knowing what
the targets are, how could they feel secure that the nation is ready for
potential surges in infection rates in the future? On the other hand, if they
feel overconfident in the contextless numbers, people might be lulled into
complacency, unaware that the capacity-building improvements may not have
been enough.The right to information is not a static right; it is not meant
to merely apprise. Citizens are equipped with knowledge in order to spur them
to action—reasonable and informed courses of action.In this climate of great
uncertainty, it is not enough to have information. These precarious times
make public cooperation (and public demands for better alternatives) matters
of life and death for a great many. The public must see the whole
picture—information in full context—in order to be effective citizens in the
midst of contagion.References:Const. art. III, §
7.Exec. Order No. 2 (2016). Operationalizing in the Executive Branch the
People’s Constitutional Right to Information and the State Policies to Full
Public Disclosure and Transparency in the Public Service and Providing
Guidelines Therefor.Legaspi v. Civil Service Commission, 234 Phil. 521–37
(1987); Valmonte v. Belmonte, 252 Phil. 264–79 (1989); Gonzales v. Narvasa,
392 Phil. 518–31 (2000).Presidential Communications Operations Office,
Transcripts, https://pcoo.gov.ph/transcripts/.Department
of Health, COVID-19 Tracker Philippines, https://ncovtracker.doh.gov.ph/?fbclid=IwAR0koYoUMzkioDm3JykO48p6Pf6c1DQs8641SqFQhGJl9zmXWBzPGIeZ1zA
.University of the Philippines Resilience Institute, UPRI EndCOV
Dashboard,
https://endcov.ph/dashboard/.Gillan
Ropero, Gov’t Eyeing ‘Selective Quarantine’ If COVID-19 Parameters
Met: Task Force Chief
, (Apr. 12, 2020, 10:43 A.M.), https://news.abs-cbn.com/news/04/12/20/govt-eyeing-selective-quarantine-if-covid-19-parameters-met-task-force-chief.CNN
Philippines Staff, Duterte Adviser Bats for Gradual Reopening of
Malls, Restaurants, Public Transport after Luzon Lockdown,
(Apr.
16, 2020 12:45 P.M.), https://www.cnnphilippines.com/news/2020/4/16/malls-restaurants-public-transport-gradual-operations-COVID-lockdown.html.

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