MANILA, Philippines—It was not just the duly elected representatives who made sure to file their priority legislation early on the first working day of the 16th Congress.
On behalf of the Filipino people, the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition, composed of civil society groups and people’s organizations pushing for transparency and accountability in government, filed the people’s freedom of information (FOI) bill with the House of Representatives Secretary General, through a petition for indirect initiative.
This means the bill was filed directly by the people, without a lawmaker having sponsored the measure.
Under the Initiative and Referendum Law, any duly accredited people’s organization may file a petition for indirect initiative in the House of Representatives or any legislative body, with the petition containing a summary of the chief purposes and contents of the measure that it wants enacted into law.
House rules also state that bills filed through a people’s initiative would be referred to the Committee on Rules for appropriate action.
The Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition’s Nepomuceno Malaluan said the group’s direct filing of the FOI bill underscored the people’s demand for a true transparency and accountability law.
All FOI bills filed in previous Congresses had fallen by the wayside, Malaluan noted.
“We are invoking this right to send a strong message that the Filipinos want this bill passed into law. The past four Congresses had failed the people as far as FOI legislation is concerned,” he said in a statement.
The group said its version of the FOI bill was different from the one tackled in the last Congress. The new version clearly defines the allowable exceptions to the transparency law so that public officials would not have a wide discretion in withholding or granting access to information.
The bill also states that the exceptions could not be invoked to cover up a crime, wrongdoing, graft or corruption.
The President, Supreme Court, Senate, House of Representatives and Constitutional Commissions may also waive their exception with respect to information in their custody or control, when they believe there is compelling or overriding public interest in disclosure.
The people’s FOI bill states that there should be a legal presumption in favor of access to information, and that government agencies would have the burden of proving that the information requested is exempted from disclosure.
The bill also provides a speedy and uniform process for the public to gain access to government information, as well as specifies the acts that violate the right to information, and which are considered administrative or criminal offenses. It further provides standards for record-keeping and the proactive disclosure of classes of information imbued with public interest.
Considered criminal acts under the bill are falsely denying or concealing the existence of information for disclosure, and destroying or causing to be destroyed information being requested under the FOI act to frustrate access to this.
The exceptions from disclosure include information that may damage national security or the internal and external defense of the state, and that pertaining to foreign affairs, the revelation of which may weaken the government’s negotiating position or jeopardize diplomatic relations with other nations.
But sufficient information must also be disclosed to allow reasonable public participation in government decision-making on bilateral and multilateral agreements, the measure states.
Also exempted are the minutes or records of advice given or of opinions expressed during government policy formulation—which are invoked by the President as part of presidential communication privilege—when the disclosure would undermine the free and frank provision of advice or exchange of views by public officials.
But an executive order must be issued specifying the reasonable period after which this information could be made accessible to the public.
The authorities may also withhold information pertaining to law enforcement and internal or external defense when disclosure would interfere with legitimate military or police operations, compromise the prevention or detection of criminal activity, disclose the identity of a confidential source, disclose techniques or procedures used by law enforcers or give rise to the risk of circumventing the law, and would endanger the life or safety of an individual.
Originally posted: 4:30 pm | Monday, July 1st, 2013