Philippine Freedom of Information bill – Quo vadis?
The freedom of information (FOI) bill remains languishing in the House of Representatives two years after Benigno Aquino III, who campaigned on a platform of government transparency, won the presidency. Rep. Lorenzo Tañada III of Quezon, the bill’s main author, remains optimistic that the measure can be passed by the 15th Congress even if the 2013 midterm elections is just seven months away.
Tañada, who concurrently serves as the deputy speaker for Luzon, explained that the FOI bill has been forwarded to the House Committee on Public Information since November 2010. He pointed out that committee chair Rep. Ben Evardone of Eastern Samar is yet to schedule a public hearing regarding the bill.
“He (Evardone) wants us to have a caucus first before the hearing, but it should be the other way around,” Tañada said during an interview at the University of the Philippines Diliman last September. Frequently mentioned as a potential senatorial candidate, Tañada is not included in the lineup of the Liberal Party for the 2013 polls.
Prior to his inauguration, Aquino reiterated that he will prioritize the passage of the FOI bill. However, the president failed to mention the measure in his three state of the nation addresses so far. The FOI is also not listed as one of the government’s priority bills during the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council meeting last August 2011. Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said then that the Palace “needs more time” to study the measure.
Tañada, upon instructions from the Palace, led a technical working group in consolidating the different versions of the FOI bill. Early this year, Malacañang released its proposed version of the FOI bill, but the measure is yet to reach the plenary. “No one has come out publicly to oppose the FOI, but there are those who want to delay the process,” Tañada said, specifically blaming Evardone for the bill’s slow progress.
A former president of the Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines, Evardone served as Eastern Samar governor prior to his stint in Congress. Evardone defected to the Liberal Party despite being a former member of the LAKAS-KAMPI coalition shortly after Aquino’s victory.
Evardone announced last June that the FOI bill will be tackled after Aquino’s July 23 state of the nation address but in August 6, he canceled the scheduled vote on the measure because of “contending issues that needs to be resolved first.” The following day, 117 House solons announced their support for the FOI measure through a paid advertisement.
Early this month, the Right to Know, Right Now Coalition, a group advocating the passage of the FOI bill, decried what it sees as a “conspiracy” between Evardone and House majority leader Neptali Gonzales, Jr. to “kill” the measure. In a statement, the group pointed out that it is within Gonzales’ power to certify the FOI bill as urgent so that it can be included in the lower house’ calendar of business. “Gonzales’ inaction confirms Evardone’s earlier claim that his refusal to act on the bill was consistent with instructions from the House leadership,” the group said.
The FOI bill was first filed in 1992 by then-Pangasinan Rep. Oscar Orbos. In June 2010, the measure passed the third and final reading in both houses of congress but the House of Representatives led by then-Speaker Prospero Nograles failed to ratify the measure for supposed lack of quorum. Tañada belied this, saying that almost all of his colleagues attended the last session day because it features a tribute for solons that have completed three successive terms.
Article III, section 7 of the 1987 Constitution says that the state should recognize “the right of the people to information on matters of public concern.” “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,” the provision further elucidates. This is in line with a 1946 declaration by the United Nations that freedom of information “is a fundamental human right” and that it is “an essential factor in promoting peace and progress in the world.”
The Palace-endorsed version of the FOI bill states that “all information pertaining to official acts, transactions or decisions, as well as government research data used as basis for policy development, regardless of their physical form or format in which they are contained and by whom they were made” should be made accessible to the public. In case a request for information will be denied, the concerned agency shall do so within seven working days.
This decision can be appealed by the requesting party before the Office of the Ombudsman, who in turn should decide on the matter within 60 working days. The FOI bill will also require all government officials including military generals, to publicize their statement of assets, liabilities, and net worth in the Internet.
Meanwhile, documents about the following are exempted from the proposed measure, subject to determination by the government agency concerned:
*Those pertaining to national defense
*Those related to the country’s foreign affairs
*Those related to military and law enforcement operation
*Personal information about private individuals
*Industrial, financial, or commercial secrets of individuals or entities
* Drafts of decisions by any executive, administrative, judicial, or quasi-judicial body
For his part, Nueva Ecija Rep. Rodolfo Antonino’s version of the FOI legislation includes a “right of reply” provision. In Antonino’s proposal, government officials who might be involved in issues arising from the release of public documents through FOI should be given the opportunity to reply in the same space of the printed material or in the same radio or television program where the issue was tackled.
This reply should be aired or published not later than three days after it has been received. Tañada expressed his objection to Antonino’s proposal, saying that it infringes on the editorial independence of media outfits. A right or reply bill has been pushed in the Senate in early 2009 but was subsequently withdrawn after receiving flak from media groups.
“The FOI bill can be a powerful tool in empowering people. People should always assert their right to information,” Tañada said, belying claims that only media persons will benefit if and when the measure gets passed. The solon from Quezon lamented that his colleagues are “not comfortable” with the FOI bill. “Will they (House solons) like it if people can examine how they spend their pork barrel?” Tañada asks. The 20-year delay in the passage of the FOI bill seems to answer this question already.
*This article also appeared in Bulatlat.com last October 18. Follow this link.