Friday, August 19, 2011

AIJC, Coalition Urges Congress to Take Lead on Freedom of Information Bill

After winning under the banner of "Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap" (There would be no poverty if there is no corruption), many media organizations and advocates had high hopes that under President Benigno S. Aquino III, the Freedom of Information Bill, perhaps one of the most controversial bill in the House of Representatives, would be passed.

The FOI bill assures the public access to all government papers and transactions, for as long as it would not compromise national security. This right was guaranteed by the 1987 Philippine constitution. But the bill is yet to be passed and has been seemingly watered down into nothing but restrictive policies.

Lately, Aquino has been very silent on the issue of the FOI. Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda, in defense of the president, said that Aquino still has four years and nine months before his term would end. 

Below is the statement of FOI advocates urging the Congress to take action:

As PNoy defaults on FOI, Congress must now take the lead
"Kung talagang gusto, hahanap ng paraan. Kung talagang ayaw, hahanap ng dahilan."
This is exactly where President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III stands on the proposed Freedom of Information bill, which seeks only to enforce a constitutionally guaranteed right of the people to know and secure documents in the custody of government agencies.

The President says he supports the bill in principle, but that he has “specific questions and concerns” that he wants to be settled, before he endorses it as his priority legislation. His concerns, the President says, include his fears that FOI could unlock documents that might expose people to kidnappers, cause government losses in right-of-way cases because of property price speculations, and many other unwanted results.

Yet over the last 14 months in office, he has failed to answer and settle these concerns, and for as long a period, the FOI bill has languished in limbo.

A Malacañang study group on the FOI had told us about other, bigger concerns of the President. Through Deputy Speaker and Quezon Rep. Erin Tañada, chief author of the FOI bill in the House of Representatives, we informally and indirectly engaged the study group in constructive dialogue over the last six months.

Two critical concerns on exceptions were addressed over time in three successive drafts of the FOI bill that the Palace study group crafted – “national security” and the President’s deliberative process. These were in addition to existing exceptions in the FOI bill based on national defense and foreign affairs; military or law enforcement operation; privacy; trade, industrial or commercial secrets; drafts of adjudicatory decisions; privileged information in legal proceedings; executive session of Congress; and exceptions recognized in other statutes or the Constitution.

The legislative process practically ground to a halt, precisely because the President and his study group said they were drafting their own FOI bill. We had hoped that by the opening of the second regular session of Congress, the Palace draft would be done, and the President would have certified it as a priority measure.
We had hoped as much because we still remember: As the presumptive winner of the May 2010 elections, the President had promised to assign first priority to the FOI’s passage into law, and in June 2010, as president, he launched his government on the principles of transparency, accountability, and good governance.

This is the first time we are hearing that the President has new concerns about what he says could be the undesirable results of an FOI law. His study group had not raised them at all. And it appears like pending these and even new and more concerns he could raise in the future, the FOI bill will languish in limbo for longer.
The President assures us that he supports the FOI bill “in principle” but that because his concerns linger, he could not act on his own study group’s version of the FOI bill. By all indications, the FOI bill remains stuck at the Palace.
What seems like a state of principled indecision in Malacañang makes us wonder: Is the President part of the solution, or part of the problem, in assuring the passage of the FOI bill? Or perhaps neither, because he has chosen to pass up a chance to lead on a strategic policy issue that the Constitution has so clearly mandated him and all public officials to uphold and enforce – the people’s right to know.

The fate of the FOI bill was a leadership call on the President. We had not wished he would default. Yet because he has, we refocus our efforts on the House of Representatives and the Senate, which should, without need for cue or advice from Malacañang, act now and quickly on the FOI bill.

We do so with eyes wide open that as it was in the 14th Congress under then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the FOI bill could face rough, tough sailing in the 15th Congress. While Mrs. Arroyo and her allies vigorously opposed and killed the bill before it could be ratified, President Aquino now seems to want to let the bill waste away, and fade in time.

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