Senate will pass FOI bill by March–Drilon
MANILA, Philippines—Senate President Franklin Drilon sees the passage of the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill in the upper chamber by March.
The controversial measure has been bypassed twice by Congress.
Given its relatively light load in the early months of the year, the Senate could pass proposed legislation, including the FOI bill, by the first quarter, Drilon said.
The bill would grant the public access to government information, excluding only sensitive national security issues. For this reason, among others, most legislators are opposed to as it could lead to revelations of government workings that public officials would rather keep from the people.
“The FOI is in an advanced stage of debate, interpellation has been going on. We imposed a deadline of the first quarter next year within which to pass the bill,” Drilon told reporters on Dec. 19, the day after Congress adjourned for the holidays.
Some senators spent the last session days interpellating Sen. Grace Poe on the salient provisions of the measure which she had sponsored on the floor as chair of the committee on public information.
Poe said the goal of an FOI Act was to apply the “sunshine principle” in government.
“Exposing the government to the sunshine of public scrutiny will kill the germs and disinfect the microbes that lead to waste and red tape, abuse of authority, gross misconduct, and graft and corruption,” she had said in her sponsorship speech.
Poe said that after Sweden passed such a law in 1766 granting its citizens access to official documents—the first country to do so— Finland, Norway and Denmark followed suit. Even Thailand passed its version of the law.
So far, 94 countries have such a law, while another 53 nations are on track to ratify similar legislation.
Poe indicated that such a law had a direct correlation to less corruption in states.
A majority of the countries with an FOI law, however, have freedom of information “in name only, but not in spirit,” she said.
For it to be strong, the law must have a presumption of release, clearly defined exemptions, an independent implementing agency, efficiency and timeliness, and strict penalties for noncompliance, Poe added.
In the House of Representatives, meanwhile, the measure has been stuck in the committee on public information, but Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. has vowed to see its passage by the end of his term in June 2016.
The bill was tied up in the previous 15th Congress due to Malacañang’s reservations about some provisions.
President Benigno Aquino III had said that he was mainly concerned about a provision making transcripts of Cabinet meetings, except those pertaining to national security and diplomacy, available to the public.
With such a provision, a Cabinet official may think twice about what he will say because the meeting is being recorded, Mr. Aquino had said in September.
“The only thing I really am conscious about is that when [we] have discussions nobody is intimidated to say what they have to say,” he said.
But a push from the President would go a long way toward boosting the chances of the FOI bill being promptly passed by the House, one of its authors has said.
Since an FOI law is among the government’s commitments under the UN Convention Against Corruption, an indication of Mr. Aquino’s backing—even if it was not a certification of urgency—would be significant, said Ifugao Rep. Teddy Baguilat yesterday.
“Certification is not necessary now, although it’s desired. But even just a sweeping statement of support for the UNCAC commitment clearly mentioning the FOI will be a big impetus,” Baguilat added.
He noted that both leaders of Congress had committed themselves to seeing through the passage of the FOI bill in their respective chambers.
“The question is how soon and how aggressive the push will be. It’s not really a done deal and I think the House champions will have to work extra hard for it, without an extra lift from the powers that be,” he said.
The House committee on public information has created a technical working group (TWG) to consolidate the bill’s different versions. The TWG has a mid-February deadline to come up with the consolidated version.
The committee is headed by Misamis Occidental Rep. Jorge Almonte. In the previous Congress, its chair was Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone.
Baguilat said the TWG had yet to meet and he was apprehensive about hitting the target date.
For Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Neri Colmenares, even if the FOI bill were to be fast-tracked, constant vigilance was needed because the Palace and the House leadership might push an “inutile” and “toothless” measure.
“Advocates should make sure this intention fails, otherwise it would be as if we did not pass an FOI law,” Colmenares said. With a report from Leila B. Salaverria
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