Duterte’s freedom of information is not so free

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: United States

Publishing organisation: Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 2022-05-03

Language: English

Authors: Prinz Magtulis


Prinz Magtulis is a seasoned financial and data journalist from the Philippines with over a decade of experience covering macroeconomy, public finance, banking, and the financial markets. He holds a masters degree in data journalism from Columbia University and currently a graphics reporter for Reuters.

Project description:

I scraped the Philippines’ freedom of information portal to assess how many of the requests are being granted or denied under former president Rodrigo Duterte. The story contains my findings and reporting.

Impact reached:

The project was published by PCIJ in time for World Press Freedom Day at the time. One of our findings showed how the FOI website became an avenue for people to ask for cash assistance at the height of pandemic lockdowns. It shed light to what was already anecdotally known fact that people were using the website to ask for assistance at the time, which was being scrutinized by congress.

Techniques/technologies used:

This is originally a class project for Columbia which I submitted to PCIJ. I scraped the Philippines freedom of information website to collect FOI requests filed online. The scraper still runs every three days and still fetching new data.

These data are collected and compiled with CSVs from the government showing requests from the FOI website since its inception in September 2016 to 2021. To date, around 120,000 FOI requests are in the database, and still counting. The story itself only covers FOI requests from September 2016 to April 2022.

I then analyzed the entries using pandas and created visualization through Adobe Creative Suite.

Context about the project:

For decades, journalists, academicians and other civil society groups have called for a freedom of information (FOI) law in the Philippines, yet Congress has failed to act on them. When then president Rodrigo Duterte entered office in 2016, one of his first acts was to issue an Executive Order (EO) to establish FOI in the Executive branch, supposedly as an answer to rampant calls for transparency in government. Under this order, the FOI website was established as one-stop shop to file FOI requests to various agencies.

But while the EO was a welcome development, our report showed that many of the requests were being denied or not being acted upon. Most interestingly, controversial requests like data on war on drugs, infrastructure project contracts are being rejected. Corruption is pervasive in the Philippines and for many years, FOI was seen as a way to shed light on government dealings yet Duterte’s FOI seemed to have failed on this front.

For all the controversies that hounded his administration, from the drug war to shutting down the Philippines’ biggest media network, Duterte takes pride on institutionalizing FOI during his term and used that as a shield to critics who said his government didn’t respect freedom of speech or lack transparency. Our findings show that his defense using the FOI is flimsy at best.

I did this project as a student in Columbia and while in school in New York. I scraped the website and analyzed the results using pandas. I scheduled interviews with key people from back home and talked to them via Zoom, following my findings.

One constraint was the FOI website. It’s supposed to contain all entries since 2016, but when I tried scraping, the scraper stops at a dead end at some point. I was told by the FOI management that they are pulling down old requests from the site because it tends to be heavy to load. I ended up just scraping entries for this year and using the CSV file they provided containing entries from 2016 to 2021.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

This is the first journalistic piece that clearly and methodically assessed how the freedom of information regime in the Philippines has been faring under Duterte.

Before the story was published by PCIJ, the repo for this project is already on Github. On April 2022, a journalism student from the University of the Philippines reached out to me via email asking if she could use my FOI scraper to assist her undergraduate thesis (see attachment please). I immediately obliged. The code for this is available publicly and the scraper is still running. The CSV file containing all entries is also available for download. This just goes to show that this can beneficial not only for journalists themselves, but even for scholars.

This is a continuing project that may run over the next few years and can be a good gauge for journalists in assessing transparency in government.

Project links: