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SALN posting mandatory in President Aquino’s FOI bill

Statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs) of top government officials will no longer require a subpoena for the public to be informed on bureaucrats’ finances if President Benigno Aquino III’s version of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill is passed by Congress.

Under the mandatory disclosure provisions of Malacañang’s version of the transparency measure, SALNs of the President, Vice President, members of the Cabinet, Congress and the Supreme Court are among those required to be uploaded in their respective websites.

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The other officials whose SALNs need to be disclosed in government websites are members of constitutional commissions and other constitutional offices, and officers of the Armed Forces with general or flag rank.

“We have … included and expanded what kind of information that is going to be out there without anyone having to file with the government agencies,” said Undersecretary Manuel Quezon III of the Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office.

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Quezon chairs the Malacañang panel that conducted discussions with government entities, media organizations and other stakeholders to come up with an FOI bill that it expects would be acceptable to all concerned.

“This was based in large part on our discussion with the media. The media [are largely] concerned with the money trail. Where the funds come from, where it is being spent, how much is being spent,” Quezon said in a news briefing on Friday.

Asked whether the Aquino administration’s proposed transparency measure would effectively do away with the Supreme Court resolution keeping its justices’ SALNs under wraps with the clerk of court, he said: “That is our opinion.”

On the basis of that resolution, the SALNs of Chief Justice Renato Corona were initially withheld by the high court even when these were subpoenaed by the Senate impeachment court.

Mandatory disclosure

The FOI measure provides that government information be made available to the public through mandatory disclosure or upon request by any Filipino citizen.

President Aquino, through Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, sent the proposed bill strengthening “the rights of citizens to information held by the government” to Congress on Thursday.

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“Earlier today (Thursday), we formally submitted to our coalition partners in the House of Representatives a substitute Freedom of Information Bill, which we believe addresses stakeholders’ desires to have more transparency and more access to information in government,” the President said in a speech during the 112th anniversary of the Manila Bulletin.

“We want every other administration voted into power to work under the same standard of transparency and accountability that we have set for ourselves. This is a significant step toward achieving that goal,” he added.

The exceptions include those that involve documents classified as secret; minutes of policy formulation; information that would compromise external or internal defense, law enforcement and border control; draft orders, resolutions, decisions, memoranda and audit reports; information culled from an executive session of Congress; information that pertains to personal information of a natural person other than the requesting party; trade secrets; privileged information as classified by the Rules of Court; and information exempted by law or by the Constitution.

Curbing corruption

Under the FOI’s mandatory disclosure provision, documents involving the use of public funds would also be required to be uploaded in websites.

“We believe that adoption of this submission as a substitute bill to the one now pending in your committee would allow the most expeditious deliberations and enactment by the House,” Abad said in his letter to the House committee on information chair, Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone.

Malacañang also submitted its version of the FOI bill to the Senate committee on information chair, Sen. Gregorio Honasan, and Minority Floor Leader Alan Peter Cayetano.

“President Aquino believes that we can curb corruption more successfully and strengthen public institutions if citizens are given greater access to official information,” Abad said in a separate statement.

Aquino’s legacy

“Moreover, freedom of information—limited only by a few legitimate areas of confidentiality—will empower the people to hold their leaders accountable and get actively involved in governance,” he said.

Addressing questions on whether the administration would include the FOI bill as a priority measure that it wants Congress to pass, Quezon said the wording of Abad’s letter already indicated how fast the administration wanted the measure to pass.

“[The President] wants this bill to be the legacy of his administration,” Quezon said.

He said the administration expected an FOI bill to be enacted “within the second regular session of Congress.”

“That’s as categorical as we can get,” he said.

‘Just for show’

But Bayan Muna Rep. Teodoro Casiño is unimpressed by what he considered a mere “publicity stunt.”

“In the first place, we already have a superior version of the FOI bill at the committee level in Congress, and we do not need another version from Malacañang,” Casiño said in a text message.

“What we really need is the political will and push from President Aquino or Speaker Feliciano Belmonte to pass this bill. The truth is, the President does not want this bill to pass. Pakitang tao lang itong ginagawa nila (It’s just for show),” he said.

Nevertheless, Evardone said Malacañang’s version of the FOI bill would be tackled at the committee level next week.

“Although I have yet to receive the final Palace version of the [bill], I would like to assure the stakeholders and the general public that my committee will immediately consider the Palace proposal. Hopefully, we will be able to consolidate all the proposals, including the Palace version, and come up with a committee report before we adjourn for  Holy Week so we can tackle it in the plenary in May,” the lawmaker said in a text message.

Feedback mechanism

Cagayan Rep. Jack Enrile said Malacañang should immediately disseminate copies of its FOI bill to kick-start the debate.

“We welcome the news that the President will push for the FOI bill… But the devil is in the details, so the sooner they release the draft, the better, so that people can appreciate the accountability and transparency mechanisms contained in the draft,” he said.

Enrile wants the inclusion of a public feedback mechanism to vet reform policies before their adoption by the government.

“It is not enough to mandate all government agencies to make available all public records to all interested individuals or groups. More importantly, the law must allow the public voice to be heard in debates on major government policies,” he said.

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TAGS: Bayan Muna Rep. Teodoro Casiño, Cagayan Rep. Jack Enrile, FOI; statements of assets, Freedom of Information bill, Liabilities and Net Worth), President Benigno Aquino III, SALNs, Undersecretary Manuel Quezon III
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