Lawmakers look back as House finds man to lead public information panel | Inquirer News

Lawmakers look back as House finds man to lead public information panel

03:37 PM August 06, 2013

House of Representatives. INQUIRER FILE PHOTO

MANILA, Philippines – The House public information committee has become a rather “unattractive” panel to members of the House of Representatives in the 16th Congress after handling the controversial deliberations on the Freedom of Information Bill in the past Congress, a lawmaker said on Tuesday.

Western Samar Representative Mel Senen Sarmiento said that many lawmakers were not comfortable with the committee and the House leadership, in offering the chairmanship to several of its members, was hard-pressed to look for someone who will exercise fairness in handling the contentious issue of the FOI Bill.


He said that Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr.’s first move upon gaining the speakership was to discuss the committee chairmanships with the political parties in the House of Representatives.


Sarmiento, who has earlier maintained that the Liberal Party had nothing to do with the appointment of Davao City Representative Isidro Ungab as chairman of the powerful appropriations committee, said that the ruling party “only recommends” and that whoever was chosen to chair the House committees were handpicked by the House leadership.

“Just because we nominated someone does not mean that the House leadership will choose that person to head a committee. The House is an independent constitutional body and we respect who it chooses to sit in a committee,” said Sarmiento.

On Monday, the House leadership said it chose Misamis Occidental Representative Jorge Almonte as public information panel chairman. He was not the one recommended by the LP, said Sarmiento, the ruling party’s secretary general.

The Western Samar legislator first met Almonte when they were still members of the league of cities and said that the Misamis Occidental lawmaker “a prosecutor for 15 years” would no doubt consult all stakeholders of the FOI Bill as chairman of the committee on public information.

“He did that as a mayor and I believe that with this chairmanship, for sure he will consult all stakeholders,” he said.

Almonte was earlier identified as possibly heading the House ethics committee but Eastern Samar Representative Ben Evardone said he heard the Misamis Occidental lawmaker turned down the chairmanship and was instead given the public information committee.


“My advice for him would be to listen to all the stakeholders and come up with a win-win, acceptable version of the FOI Bill,” he said.

Diwa Representative Emmeline Aglipay, the one endorsed by pro-FOI lawmakers to head the public information panel, said that she already expected that she would not be given the chairmanship after being told by the Speaker that other House members were already being considered for the job.

And although some of the lawmakers who are pushing for the passage of the measure were disappointed that Aglipay was not chosen as chairperson, Ifugao Representative Teddy Baguilat Jr. said he felt that he and Almonte were “kindred spirits” in that the new public information chairman voted for the approval of the RH Bill in the 15th Congress.

“Jorge voted for RH and he is in LP so we must be kindred spirits in a small way,” he said, adding that pro-FOI lawmakers were scheduled to meet within the day to discuss their strategies for the FOI Bill.

Discussions will also include how the group will “engage Congressman Almonte,” said Baguilat.

“I’m just hopeful that even if Congressman Jorge’s stance on the FOI is largely uncharted, he will not be an instrument of blockage but will facilitate discussion and eventually a decision on the bill in the committee. Hopefully at the end of the process, he [would decide] to be an advocate of the FOI in the plenary,” he said.

He added that they were still hopeful Aglipay could still be in the running to at least secure the post of vice chairman of the said committee.

The FOI Bill again failed to make it in President Benigno Aquino III’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) this year and Akbayan Representative Walden Bello said that it was likely that the measure would have a difficult time in the legislative mill without the President’s support.

“To be totally frank, even if we advocates were to do all sorts of acrobatics, if the President is cool towards the FOI, it won’t pass. But even if it’s doomed, we will fight for it because we might lose this battle but eventually we will win the war, of that I’m sure,” he said.

Advocates of the FOI Bill have filed their own version of the measure in the House of Representatives and the Senate to show that there was support for the measure even outside Congress.

Evardone, who chaired the committee on public information in the 15th Congress, said that he was set to file his own version of the FOI Bill which had “safeguards against possible abuse.”

“The FOI Bill has been misconstrued, I think. The main intention is to empower the people so they can join in the formulation of policies by providing them with the necessary information. Now, the notion is that people will scrutinize public documents in order to destroy public officials,” he said.

The LP has yet to make a party stand on the FOI Bill but Marikina Representative Miro Quimbo said that they were hopeful that the measure would become a law during the 16th Congress.

He described the past Congress wherein the FOI Bill perished after its deliberations in the committee level were stalled as having “grappled with the FOI and dealing with phantoms–the paranoia of officials and civil servants that they will end up answering queries.”

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“The fears by today have sort of been clarified. Look at the Reproductive Health Bill, which was eventually passed. I think that with a vibrant debate the FOI Bill will also be passed” said Quimbo.


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