Time running out on FOI bill
Hope is dimming for the passage of the freedom of information (FOI) bill in the House of Representatives, after the committee vote on its approval Tuesday was delayed when the heated discussion got mired in technical procedures and what one lawmaker called “minute” issues.
Despite motions by some lawmakers to put the consolidated FOI bill to a vote, public information committee chairman Ben Evardone adjourned the hearing, saying they had run out of time since the plenary session was about to start at 4 p.m. and there were still many issues to resolve at the next hearing.
As it turned out, there was no plenary session as there was no quorum on the floor. The House adjourned before 5:30 p.m.
The FOI committee hearing ended amid boos from the bill’s advocates who were on the sidelines, hoping for the bill’s approval in committee so it could be forwarded to the plenary for debate and approved on final reading before the end of the year.
The committee did not even get to discuss the merits of inserting a right of reply proviso in the bill, which several lawmakers expected would be controversial.
Most of the two hours devoted to the FOI bill were monopolized by Nueva Ecija Rep. Rodolfo Antonino, who raised the supposed failure of the technical working group—headed by FOI proponent Rep. Lorenzo Tañada III—to hold a hearing to tackle Antonino’s version of the bill that contains a right of reply provision.
The TWG reviewed the different versions of the FOI bill that were filed and came up with a consolidated measure which was submitted to the public information committee for deliberations and approval.
Tañada said he was “dismayed” by Evardone’s handling of the committee hearing and acknowledged that the chances of the FOI bill being passed were getting slimmer.
“It’s going to be a crawl to the finish line and I don’t think we can crawl as fast as we want,” Tañada told reporters.
He said that if the bill was not approved in the next committee hearing, its chances lay in the ensuing 16th Congress.
Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Teodoro Casiño said the “incompetence” that marked Tuesday’s committee hearing “could only have been deliberate” and showed that the House did not really want to pass the FOI bill.
When the measure was finally put on the table, Antonino questioned the procedure for coming up with the consolidated bill, saying that Tañada did not call a hearing of the TWG to discuss his bill.
Yet, Antonino said, Tañada included in the consolidated bill the proposed amendments from Malacañang.
But according to Tañada, Antonino’s bill was not referred to the TWG by the public information committee because Evardone did not schedule any committee hearings in 2011.
Tañada said Malacañang’s proposals were considered because Palace officials were present during the first and only TWG hearing held during which they were asked to come up with their suggestions on the bill.
During the discussions on this point, where voices were raised, Akbayan party-list Rep. Walden Bello said the issues had been sufficiently discussed and asked that the committee vote on whether or not to approve the bill.
He was seconded by several lawmakers, with Casiño saying the committee should move on from discussing “minute” points.
But Evardone said that Rep. Pedro Romualdo, who could not be at the hearing, had asked that the bill not be voted on yet.
Isabela Rep. Giorgidi Aggabao also asked for a continuance of the hearing supposedly because of a conflict in the provision requiring the publication of officials’ statements of assets, liabilities, and net worth on websites with the House rules on the release of such a document.
Amid the discussion, Antonino moved to adjourn the hearing as it was close to 4 p.m., saying that for committee hearings to continue past that time they must have the permission of House leaders.
Several lawmakers objected to the adjournment, with Zambales Rep. Milagros Magsaysay saying that lack of time could not be used as an excuse, especially after the committee agreed to hear Antonino’s concerns.
But Evardone still adjourned the hearing.
The FOI bill seeks to lift the secrecy surrounding government transactions and documents and allow for more transparency. The measure is also intended to battle corruption and promote good governance.
Tañada said that unless both the Senate and the House passed their respective versions before Christmas, there was little hope it would become law before the end of the 15th Congress.
Meanwhile, several groups on Tuesday said the freedom of information bill suffered “battery, assault and murder at yesterday’s hearing of the House committee on public information.”
“The FOI bill is dead in the 15th Congress,” said the groups that included the Institute for Freedom of Information, Right to Know Right Now! Coalition, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, Southeast Asia Monitor for Action, Focus on the Global South, Save Agrarian Reform Alliance, Ang Nars, Basic Education Sector Teachers Federation, Public Services Labor Independent Confederation, Filipino Migrant Workers Group, Alliance of Progressive Labor and Access to Information Network. With a report from Christian V. Esguerra
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.