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FOI bill approved for funding; moves on to plenary

/ 11:18 AM March 04, 2015

MANILA, Philippines—The Freedom of Information (FOI) bill was approved for funding on Wednesday at the House of Representatives appropriations committee, finally paving its way to the plenary for debate and amendments.

“FOI bill approved by the Committee on Appropriations! One more step towards an FOI law. Next stop, plenary discussions,” Akbayan Rep. Barry Gutierrez, one of the FOI authors, tweeted.

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This developed three months after approval by the public information committee, which consolidated 24 versions of the bill for a year.

Gutierrez in a separate statement said, “budget is one of the crucial components of the bill as it determines if the bill could be successfully implemented.”

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“Without it, our efforts to pass the bill to ensure government transparency and practice of governance will simply end up as a shot in the dark,” he said.

With the approval of the bill for funding, the FOI will be delivered back to the public information committee before it gets transmitted to the plenary for second reading.

Under the bill, the appropriated budget will be used to carry out provisions of the bill and will be charged against the current budget of the government agencies. It will also be included in the annual budget law.

The draft bill has been given the title: “An Act to Strengthen the Right of Citizens to Information Held by Government.”

According to the draft, “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.”

It seeks to cover transactions in all government agencies, which include the 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.

Legal presumption

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Access to information is a legal presumption in government, the bill said, adding that a government agency will have to prove that any information requested is exempted from disclosure.

The bill sets the following exemptions to public disclosure:

  • Information declared “secret” by an executive order, provided that such information directly relates to national defense, security and foreign affairs, and that its revelation will affect the conduct of such matters
  • 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 can the information be released to the public
  • Information that pertains to internal and/or external defense, law enforcement and border control, the disclosure of which would affect operations involving such matters
  • 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 obtained by a congressional committee in executive session
  • Personal information of a person from public or private sector, and its disclosure would constitute unwarranted invasion of his or her personal privacy
  • 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 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

15-day compliance with extension

The bill said government agencies must comply with requests for information 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 will 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 are 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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TAGS: FOI, Freedom of Information, House of Representatives, proposed legislation
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