Lack of meeting room stalls FOI bill anew in House
MANILA, Philippines—The House public information committee has been having some difficulty getting itself organized so it can begin hearings on such important measures as the freedom of information (FOI) bill, but committee chair Misamis Occidental Rep. Jorge Almonte also believes the bill is likely to be approved.
Almonte said the committee has yet to hold its first organizational meeting after an earlier scheduled meeting was overtaken by events.
An organizational meeting is held before a committee can schedule public hearings on a pending measure.
But Almonte said he would call this meeting at the “nearest opportunity.”
Zambo crisis cited
He said one of the reasons why an earlier committee meeting was scuttled was the Zamboanga crisis, which he said concerned him personally as one of his relatives was among those held hostage by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fighters.
Almonte tried to reset the meeting for another date, but could not do so again for lack of an available meeting room, Almonte said.
In the dying days of the last Congress, the FOI bill fell short because the committee, then headed by Rep. Ben Evardone, could not get a meeting room, among other reasons.
Another reason cited was that many of the committee members were busy with other meetings. Almonte also noted that the committee is short of nine members, having only 26 members now.
But Almonte also believes there is a good chance for the FOI bill to pass. He said he recognizes that the Constitution guarantees the public’s right to information.
“I’m cognizant of the fact that access to public information is a constitutional mandate, so therefore we should give life and meaning to this constitutional concept,” he told reporters.
Almonte also said the committee would exercise fairness when it starts tackling the FOI bills, of which 13 have so far been filed.
Malacañang is set to include the FOI bill in the list of measures it will present at the forthcoming meeting of the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council, but the President has yet to personally certify the measure as urgent.
One of the FOI bill’s proponents, Ifugao Rep. Teddy Baguilat, said he has high hopes the measure would pass because of the pork barrel controversy.
“I’m optimistic because the Napoles scam pressures the government to institute transparency through the FOI. That’s why it was included in the proposed 17 measures for the Ledac,” Baguilat said.
He said advocates for the measure in the committee and the bill’s authors are prepared to do the legwork to ensure its passage.
“But I think the battleground is a much larger field. With the pressure to sanitize Congress’ reputation that was hit by the [pork barrel] scam, we have a springboard to push the leadership to fast track the FOI passage,” Baguilat said.
Meanwhile, Minority Leader Ronaldo Zamora said the minority was serious about the bill and wondered whether there was a strong will from the majority to really pass it.
“We are prepared to work immediately,” he said.
Zamora said that if the majority was ready to tackle the measure, it should name their members to the committee. As for the lack of available meeting rooms, he said the minority’s conference room could be used for a meeting.
He said that if the committee is not organized soon and continues to lack for a room in which to meet, and if many other reasons are given, he would ask Speaker Feliciano Belmonte if the majority was really serious about putting the bill to a vote.
The minority is waiting for the next developments and the next steps the majority would take, he said.
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