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House fails to ratify Freedom of Information bill

By Lira Dalangin-Fernandez
First Posted 15:51:00 06/04/2010

Filed Under: Laws, Legislation, Media, Congress

MANILA, Philippines ? (UPDATE 3) The House of Representatives Friday failed to ratify the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill due to lack of quorum, causing outrage among several lawmakers and giving the 14th Congress a ?sad ending? on its last day of session.

But all is not lost for the bill as President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo can still call for a special session to have it ratified, according to Representative Neri Colmenares.
?If President Arroyo is really serious, she can call for a special session anytime, that?s what the rule says,? he said.

Colmenares also said that they are studying the possibility of raising the issue when Congress convenes in joint session for the proclamation of the winning president and vice president.

At 5:07 p.m., or close to two hours after session resumed, Speaker Prospero Nograles banged the gavel signaling the sine die adjournment of the 14th Congress.

As the roll call showed only 128 lawmakers present, Nograles said the chamber could no longer transact any legislative business, foremost of which is the FOI bill, which was on top of the agenda for the day.

It was Camiguin Representative Pedro Romualdo who questioned the quorum that prompted the calling of the roll.

At least 135 congressmen are needed for a quorum.

?Under the rules, we can?t transact business if we don?t have a quorum, and we have to adjourn sine die and proceed to closing ceremony,? Nograles said amid a howl of protest from several lawmakers in plenary and supporters of the bill from the gallery.

?I?m very sad that we?re closing this Congress in this final note,? Majority Leader Arthur Defensor said.

In a text message to reporter after the proceedings, Nograles offered his regrets for the death of the bill that would supposedly give the public easy access to information from government agencies.

?I did my best. But I guess my best wasn?t good enough,? Nograles said. ?I have not expected this to happen especially because many of the authors were not present. The authors and co-authors would have been enough to sustain the quorum and we were not remiss in requesting for their presence. This is beyond my control. I?m sorry.?

But lawmakers and media organizations pressing for the ratification of the bill are not convinced and blasted Nograles and some of the House leaders for the ?moro-moro (farce).?

Manila Representative Bienvenido Abante, the chairman of the public information committee, said he agreed to a ?compromise? when called to a meeting with Defensor Friday afternoon.

Talking to reporters after the session, he said the compromise would be for him to make a manifestation, after Defensor reads the bill on the floor, that the measure will not have a retroactive effect.

?I said sige, para walang away. (I just agreed so that there would be no more disagreement),? he said.

Abante continued saying, ?That was the agreement. I don?t even fully believe in the manifestation.?

He said he was surprised when Romualdo suddenly went to the podium and made an objection to Defensor?s call to ratify the bill.

Bayan Muna partylist Representative Teodoro Casiño said everything was ?moro-moro? to make the public believe that the House leadership wants the FOI bill, when in fact, it wants it dead.

?The non-ratification of the FOI bill is a disgrace to Congress, but is a fitting end to a Congress that, for the last three years, has zealously protected the President and her minions from being held accountable for their crimes against the people,? he said.

Rowena Carranza-Paraan, director of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said the House leaders had a ?lousy script? in making the people believe they want the FOI ratified.

Paraan came to the chamber with daughter Redgie, who was just a baby when she started advocating for the FOI.

?I?m here with my child because I?m not just a journalist. I?m also a mother who would like my child to live in a better society under a clean government. But today proves that it is impossible because those in power who have a lot to hide would not allow this to come true,? Paraan said.

Nonoy Espina, vice president of NUJP, said what happened was a ?betrayal of the people.?

?They have betrayed the people. It?s very obvious that they don?t want to pass this 12-year-old bill intended to contribute to reducing if not eradicating corruption because they have something to hide,? he said.

Quezon Representative Lorenzo ?Erin? Tanada III, one of the main authors of the bill, said ?it seems they deliberately called the roll and there was no quorum.?

Representative Joel Villanueva of the partylist Citizens Battle Against Corruption was the first to stand up when Nograles announced the lack of quorum. He said that when they made the head count, they counted about 140 congressmen.

?How can you say it?s the House of the people when we can?t even do our job,? Villanueva said.

He also invoked a House rule that says that congressmen can be arrested so that they could be physically present during plenary proceedings. Akbayan Representative Risa Hontiveros seconded the motion.

Providing comic relief to the tensed proceedings, Compostela Valley Representative Manuel ?Waykurat? Zamora offered to help in the arrest of his colleagues.

?But if I will not be allowed to, then I will just say bye-bye to everyone and ?til we meet again,? Zamora said.

The Freedom of Information bill was on top of the list of the agenda in the House when it resumed session at 3:27 p.m. Friday but just a minute after the bill was read on the floor, Romualdo questioned the quorum, prompting proponents of the bill to approach him and Nograles to suspend the session.

The landmark bill, which gives access to citizens to information being held by government offices, only needs the ratification of the House to become a law.

Proponents however expressed fear that a question on quorum could derail its ratification.
But at the resumption of the session, Romualdo refused to withdraw his motion that could possibly block the ratification of the information bill.

In a speech on the floor, Romualdo said that he could not yield to the appeal of Nograles, who approached him ?practically on his bended knees? and asked him to withdraw his motion.

?It?s not true that I don?t want transparency, that?s beside the point. We want all government transactions to be very transparent, however, it should be based on a law that has been properly, legitimately and legally enacted, that is my point,? he said.

?This is all about principle. I am sorry that I will refuse you and some of our colleagues in the leadership, I am reiterating my calling for a roll call,? he added.

Nograles suspended the session anew and said he would call a roll.

After the adjournment, the chamber proceeded with its traditional ?graduation rites? for the congressmen on their last term.

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