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Freedom of Information bill enters critical stage in Philippines

CMFR/R2KRN

(CMFR/IFEX) - The Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility is a member of the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition [R2KRN], a network of media organizations and public interest groups pushing for the passage of the Freedom of Information Act. The R2KRN issued the following statement on November 5 2012, a week before the scheduled November 13 House Committee Hearing on the FOI bill.

Carpe diem!
Seize the day!

A little over three months ago, House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. uttered these words to summon his colleagues in the House of Representatives to work harder and faster on bills pending in the chamber, not least of them the FOI (Freedom of Information) bill. This clarion call may well be addressed not only to the House, but to the Senate, the Executive, and the public as well.

Starting November 5, the FOI bill enters a most critical stage. There would only be 35 working days left before Congress again adjourns on December 21. Session will resume for only 15 working days next year from January 21 to February 8, after which legislative work virtually grinds to a halt to give way to the campaign for the May 13, 2013 elections.

While time is running out, the FOI bill can still take a different path than it did under the 14th Congress of Speaker Prospero Nograles and President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, if only the House of Representatives, the Senate, and President Benigno S. Aquino III will take decisive action now.

At the House of Representatives, the first hurdle will be for the Committee on Public Information to approve a committee report when it meets on Tuesday, November 13.

After the bill passes the Committee on November 13, Belmonte must be able to lead the House in approving the bill before it adjourns on December 22.

At the Senate, the progress of the FOI bill has slowed down despite the strong stated commitment to its passage by the Senate leadership and FOI champions. After Senator Gregorio Honasan II sponsored the FOI committee report before the Senate plenary last 4 June, Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, a key champion of the FOI bill, has not found an opportunity to deliver his co-sponsorship speech that would pave the way for the period of interpellation on the bill.

We hope Senator Cayetano delivers his co-sponsorship speech at the soonest, and Senator Honasan shepherds the bill through interpellations and approval in plenary also before the December 22 adjournment.

Only an approval of the FOI bill on second and third reading in both Houses before adjournment on December 22 will allow it to go through bicameral conference committee in time for ratification when session resumes in January.

While the primary burden for passing the FOI law rests with Congress, there is no denying the critical factor that Malacañang's unequivocal support will play in getting this landmark measure through. Even as we acknowledge Malacañang's endorsement of an amended FOI bill in Congress in February this year, the hands-off position that Malacañang has since taken on the bill is regarded by no less than House Committee Chairman Ben Evardone as a signal to prevent the advance of the measure.

In an interview in the television program Failon Ngayon last August, Evardone gave the following explanation for his earlier inaction on the FOI bill:

"I'm not stopping it personally. I've been wanting to push the bill out of my committee because I'm the one being criticized in the media. I was a former media practitioner. Of course, I cannot decide on my own. Especially this issue is so sensitive, controversial and not the President's priority because it was not in the legislative agenda submitted to Congress, no mention during the SONA [State of the Nation Address], although the Speaker mentioned that it is supposed to be given priority)."

Evardone added:

"But there is no party stand. Is there a party stand of the Liberal Party? There is none! Kung merong party stand angLiberal Party, no problem, ako I toe the line."

With Evardone openly and publicly blaming President Aquino and his party for the delay in the passage of the FOI Act, we must hear from the President and LP reformers to refute Evardone, and take an unambiguous support for the FOI bill's passage as they do on other measures such as the sin tax bill.

On our part we see the roadblocks to the passage of the FOI law as a challenge to strengthen our resolve to push for the immediate passage of the FOI law.

The importance of passing the FOI Act is acknowledged by the highest leaders of our country.

In his speech before the Makati Business Club – Management Association of the Philippines joint membership meeting on 19 November 2010, Speaker Belmonte emphasized that "the drive against corruption requires a comprehensive approach that includes enhancing law enforcement, increasing prosecutorial success, and establishing a culture of transparency in government." He identified the FOI bill as among the legislative proposals being studied towards such ends.

Senate President Enrile provided a keen insight into the impact of passing the FOI Act, in his speech at the opening of the third regular session of the 15th Congress last July 23. He said:

"The benefits of transparency are mutually advantageous to civil society and government. The vigilance of our citizens becomes the standard (on) which our public leaders will be measured. Transparency parts the curtains of corruption and illegal practices. In turn, accountability, will refine decision-making, and make leadership and public institutions more responsive and efficient."

Budget and Management Secretary Florencio Abad, in a statement released when he submitted Malacañang's endorsed version of the FOI bill to the House last February, said that it is essential in the Aquino administration's governance and anti-corruption plan:

"President Aquino believes that we can curb corruption more successfully and strengthen public institutions if citizens are given greater access to official information. Moreover, freedom of information - limited only by a few legitimate areas of confidentiality - will empower the people to hold their leaders accountable and get actively involved in governance."

Time is of the essence to maximize the FOI law's full potential in fighting corruption and ingraining the culture of transparency and accountability in government. If we again wait for the next Congress to pass the FOI law, there would be very limited time to ensure its proper and effective implementation that we hope an anti-corruption administration can ensure. One key lesson from anti-corruption efforts is that we are weakest in implementation.

Also, passing the FOI law now will reinforce the political statement that the fight against corruption applies equally to all. It will no doubt make a difference in the landscape of the anti-corruption efforts of government, which used to put political survival at the forefront while key measures are made to wait in order to manage politics.

We will not accept a non-passage of the FOI bill in the 15th Congress!

As part of our continuing expression of our collective demand for the immediate passage of the FOI bill, we shall peaceably assemble in Mendiola on 12 November 2012, and call on President Aquino as well as the leaders and members of the Senate and House of Representatives, to honor their promise to pass the Freedom of Information Act.

Click here for the full list of signatories.
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