Senate panels approve FOI bill

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Senator Mary Grace Poe-Llamanzares. FILE PHOTO

MANILA, Philippines — The proposed Freedom of Information (FOI) bill that would give the public access to government records was approved by a joint panel in the Senate on Wednesday after holding only two hearings.

The first hearing was held by the committees on public information, civil service, and finance last September 4 while the second and final hearing was conducted at 10 a.m. this Wednesday.

Senator Grace Poe, head of the committee on public information, adjourned the hearing around 12 noon without saying whether the bill was approved or not. But when asked   in a press conference about the status of the bill, she categorically said that it was already approved by the committees.

“Oo pasado na sa komite kasi meron na namang basic provisions na we really agree on (Yes it was passed in the committee level because there were basic provisions that we really agree on),” she said.

A committee report on the approved bill will now be routed to members of the committees for signature before it will be submitted for plenary debates.

Poe said they were “determined” to submit a committee report on the floor on September 24, sponsor it for plenary debates on September 25 and hopefully gets the approval of the chamber within the year.

Conspicuously missing in the approved measure, the senator said, is the controversial “right of reply” provision, which would mandate media organizations to allow officials to respond to reports that were obtained through the FOI requests.

“In all of the 11 submissions, resolutions and bills, walang right of reply akong nakita (I did not see a right of reply provision).  But of course this is not to say that the lower house won’t entertain such a provision,” she said.

The senator said she was personally opposed to the provision.

“(I believe) in self-regulation. These are ethical standards that are already imposed on different (media) organizations that you have to be able to present both sides. E kung hindi ka naman gumagawa ng ganoon, alam naman ng tao kung papaniwalaan ka o hindi,” she said.

“Sa akin kasi (To me) that’s another form of censorship so I don’t want to dictate how news will be presented and how it will be taken as long as the access to information is there,” Poe added.

While the bill, if enacted into law, would allow access to   government records, it also contains  some exemptions and safeguards  on information concerning national security, bargaining position of the country in international transactions  or when it would jeopardize criminal investigation, among others.

On the issue on whether or not to declassify information, Poe said, “The court shall always favor the right to information.”

At the start of the hearing, Poe stressed the need to enact the bill into law.

“In our committee, one thing is clear—it is important now to enact into law the Freedom of Information or FOI bill. With this law, we can give every Filipino a chance and the power to actively participate in monitoring how the government spends public’s money,” she said.

Poe said alleged abuses in the government would have been prevented if the bill has long been passed in Congress.

The bill was approved in the Senate during the last Congress but failed to get the same approval at the House of Representatives.

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