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House panel OKs FOI bill

/ 04:16 PM November 24, 2014

MANILA, Philippines – After one year of drafting, the freedom of information (FOI) bill on Monday hurdled the committee level in the House of Representatives.

This after the technical working group (TWG) finished consolidating the 24 versions of the FOI bill, which seeks to promote transparency and accountability in government transactions.

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The TWG was formed last November 2013 and it only approved the bill on September 2014. Finally, after nine TWG meetings that spanned one year, the panel approved the consolidated bill.

The panel approved the bill on a vote of 10 to three. Those who voted against are Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares, Act Teachers Rep. Antonio Tinio and Camiguin Rep. Xavier Jesus Romualdo.

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Authors of the bill from the Makabayan bloc withdrew their authorship of the bill, which they claimed was a toothless FOI bill.

“We will move for the deletion of these exemptions which renders the FOI toothless… We hope we will be able to pass an effective FOI law which effectively allows access to information instead of a law which makes it difficult for the people the media to access public information,” Colmenares said in a statement.

The bill will then be tackled in the appropriations committee to determine the sources of funding. After which, it will move on to the plenary for second reading where it will be open for debates and amendments.

According to the approved draft bill titled “An Act to strengthen the right of citizens to information held by government, “the State recognizes the right of the people to information on matters of public concern and adopts and implements a policy of full public disclosure of all its transactions involving public interest, subject to the procedures and limitations as provided by this Act.”

The bill said public disclosure is mandatory for all government agencies, including executive, legislative and judicial branches, constitutional bodies, local governments and their agencies, regulatory agencies, chartered institutions, government owned and controlled corporations, government financial institutions, state universities and colleges, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Philippine National Police, all offices in Congress, Supreme Court and all lower courts.

Access to information is a legal presumption in government, the bill said, adding that the government agencies will be the ones tasked to prove that the information requested is exempted from disclosure.

The bill sets the following exemptions to the public disclosure policy:

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– Information requested is authorized to be kept secret under an executive order, provided that information directly relates to national defense and security, foreign affairs, the revelation of which will affect the conduct of such matters
– Information are records of minutes, advice and opinions expressed during decision-making or policy formulation invoked by the President to  be privileged information. Only after formulation of policy and decisions will the information be released to the public
– Information pertains to internal and/or external defense, law enforcement and border control, the disclosure of which would affect operations involving such matters
– Information are drafts of the following: orders, resolutions, decisions, memoranda, or audit reports by any executive, administrative, regulatory, constitutional, judicial, quasi-judicial body in the exercise of their adjudicatory and/or audit function
– Information is obtained by a Congress committee in executive session
– Information pertains to personal information of a person from public or private sector, and its disclosure would constitute unwarranted invasion of his or her personal privacy
– Information on trade secrets and commercial or financial information or intellectual property, the disclosure of which would prejudice interests of the party involved
– Privileged communications in legal proceedings by law or by Rules of Court
– Information is exempted by law or Constitution
– Information the premature disclosure of which will likely lead to fraud, manipulation or other unlawful acts or schemes involving currencies, interest rates, securities or the commodities market that will likely frustrate the effective implementation of an action by an government agency that regulates or deals with currencies, interest rates, securities, commodities or financial institutions

The bill said government agencies must comply with the request within 15 working days from receipt, but the period may be extended if the information requested will require a thorough search of the government agency’s office.

The bill also wants government agencies to set up and maintain a website that would make public its transactions.

Failure to comply with the provisions of the bill is tantamount to administrative liability, or gross neglect of duty that constitutes to administrative and disciplinary sanction, as well as criminal liability, or a penalty of one month to six months imprisonment and dismissal from service.

Public information committee information chair Misamis Occidental Rep. Jorge Almonte said most of the provisions in the Malacañang version could be found in the consolidated bill.

“Majority of the provisions of the administration version had been incorporated in the consolidated bill. However, there are slight modifications in the exceptions and a different penal provision in the latter version,” Almonte said in an earlier statement.

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