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Right of reply, other issues stalk FOI bill

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Right of reply, other issues stalk FOI bill

/ 01:01 AM November 12, 2012

Lorenzo Tañada III. INQUIRER.net FILE PHOTO

The moment of truth for the freedom of information (FOI) bill will come this week when it is finally put on the table at the committee level, but it would have to hurdle major issues first, such as the contentious right-of-reply provision that some lawmakers want to include.

The bill is being pushed to lift the shroud of secrecy over government transactions and data, in the name of transparency and good governance. Once it becomes law, the measure will provide the public with greater access to government records.

The technical working group reconciling the different versions of the FOI bill has left it to the committee on public information to determine whether or not the right of reply would be a feature of the proposed law, according to the committee chairman, Rep. Ben Evardone.

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“It’s one of the major issues that we will hopefully be able to resolve,” Evardone said Sunday.

The right of reply is a potential powder keg, with proponents of the FOI bill opposing it on the ground that it would undermine the media’s editorial independence. They also want the right of reply tackled as a separate piece of legislation because its controversial nature would further hamper enactment of the FOI bill.

In the version of the bill filed by Nueva Ecija Rep. Rodolfo Antonino, any person involved in an issue relating to obtained documents must be given the chance to explain or account for the issue in the media.

Once the lawmakers resolve this issue and vote to pass the bill, Evardone said he would leave it to the committee on rules to schedule the bill for second reading and plenary debates.

The FOI bill has to be approved on third reading by both the House and the Senate for it to have a fighting chance of becoming a law, Deputy Speaker Lorenzo Tañada III, one of the bill’s proponents, said earlier.

Congress is expected to adjourn earlier than usual next year to give way to  the campaign period for the  midterm elections.

The FOI bill is scheduled for hearing tomorrow at 1:30 p.m., after much delay.

Lukewarm moves

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To urge the committee to vote on the measure, supporters are scheduled to march on Malacañang Monday to call on President Aquino to work for the immediate passage of the bill into law.

Mr. Aquino vowed to support the bill during his election campaign, but critics noted that his backing of the measure waned after that.

The bill also met with delays in the House of Representatives. Hearings were few and far between. There was supposed to be a hearing in August, but Evardone said he was moving the date because he wanted the contentious provisions tackled first in a caucus, which has yet to take place.

Another hearing was expected in October, but it was later moved to this month supposedly for lack of an available conference room, even though Tañada said he was able to reserve a room that same month.

The closest that the FOI bill came to being passed was in the 14th Congress in 2010, when it was approved by both chambers and the bicameral conference committee came out with a final version.

Palace bid to dilute bill

The House was all set to ratify the bill, which was the remaining step before it would be sent to then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for signature, when a question of quorum was raised. The House had to adjourn, to the dismay of the bill’s supporters.

The Palace earlier submitted to Congress its own version of the FOI bill, which included additional exceptions to the kind of information that the public could easily access.

While House allies and authors of the bill welcomed Malacañang’s proposals, Bayan Muna Rep. Teodoro Casiño criticized the administration version for watering it down.

According to Casiño, the objectionable exceptions included banning public access to official records of minutes and advice given and opinions expressed during decision-making or policy-formulation, invoked by the President to be privileged by reason of sensitivity or impairment of the presidential deliberative process.

Also among the exceptions were data related to law enforcement and defense, which he said could give officials a lot of chances to hide information on human rights violations.

Under House versions of the FOI bill, all information were considered accessible unless proven in court that these would be used for criminal purposes or were only requested for sheer curiosity.

The Malacañang version of the FOI bill also removed the proposed Information Commission, which was supposed to resolve in a timely fashion disputes between agencies and parties seeking public documents.

Originally posted: 6:38 pm | Sunday, November 11th, 2012

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