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Palace commits support for FOI bill–next year

MANILA, Philippines—Malacañang has finally committed to push for the passage of the long-awaited freedom of information (FOI) bill in 2015, one year before President Benigno Aquino III completes his term, with a transition period of two years before government agencies are fully compliant.

The Palace commitment was contained in a 10-page action plan submitted to the Open Government Partnership (OGP), which the Philippines helped put up, along with seven other countries, in 2011.

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“Support for the passage of legislation on access to information and protection of whistle-blowers” was among the nine commitments the Philippines presented to the OGP.

The OGP is described as a “multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.”

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“The government commits to include in the priority legislation of the executive branch two bills that promote access to information and protection of whistle-blowers,” according to the Philippine action plan. Aside from the FOI bill, the action plan also referred to the proposed Whistle-blowers Protection Act.

At the OGP regional conference in Indonesia last week, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte tackled key “changes” that supposedly “improved” the version of the FOI bill the Palace earlier submitted to Congress.

“Under this bill, any Filipino citizen can ask for information from any government agency, with reasonable exceptions regarding classified or sensitive data relative to national security, ongoing law enforcement operations and other exceptions as recognized under Philippine jurisprudence,” she said in her presentation.

The Palace version includes the mandatory posting of statements of assets, liabilities and net worth on government websites. Also to be uploaded are “financial documents, such as the annual budget of government agencies, itemized monthly collections and disbursements, as well as all records pertaining to the entire procurement process.”

Agencies are given a transition period of two years to update their respective websites to comply with FOI requirements.

The Malacañang proposal also contains “reasonable protection to public servants,” such as a section allowing agencies to reject “repetitive requests from the same party” and one that “expounds on the protection of employees’ personal information.”

To address “nuisance suits,” the Palace draft makes it clear that “mere denial of a request shall not constitute grounds for liability.”

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While the Senate has passed its version of the FOI bill, the measure remains pending in the House of Representatives, which is dominated by Mr. Aquino’s allies.

In the absence of an FOI law, Valte trumpeted the Palace’s data.gov.ph, an open-data initiative “to make national government data searchable, accessible and useful.”

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TAGS: Abigail Valte, Benigno Aquino III, FOI Bill, Freedom of Information bill, Open Government Partnership, President Aquino, Whistle-blowers Protection Act
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