January 21, 2011 · Posted in: General
A RENEWED push for the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill under the new administration of President Benigno Aquino III is forthcoming from media organizations, even as they hold at bay attempts by some legislators to pass the controversial Right of Reply bill.
In a recent roundtable discussion sponsored by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), media groups expressed concern that President Aquino has still not indicated if the FOI is among his administration’s top priorities. This is even though Aquino had run and won under the banner of transparency and public accountability, with repeated assurances during the campaign that he supported the free flow of information as a means to stamp out corruption.
In his briefing for media, lawyer Nepomuceno Malaluan, convenor of the Right to Know Right Now movement, said Palace officials have even indicated their desire to add more restrictions to those already cited in the bicameral version of the FOI bill that the last Congress failed to ratify before adjourning last year. The bicam version already provided for restrictions on information concerning national security, ongoing police and military operations, and diplomatic negotiations.
According to Malaluan, Palace Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma wants to restrict access to minutes of official meetings. Coloma, he said, argues that the knowledge that the minutes of a meeting would eventually be released to the public could discourage officials from holding a frank exchange of ideas. In addition, the Palace official reportedly wants to restrict information that is currently being used for decision making and project implementation.
Malaluan said Coloma also expressed his concern that the FOI measure would impose a potential administrative burden on government agencies. To Coloma, this could result in information requests tying up government officials and employees, and preventing them from doing their jobs, said Malaluan.
Further complicating the matter are the roughly one dozen other versions of the FOI bill that are in both chambers of congress. One version of the bill, authored by former Speaker Prospero Nograles, prevents requests for information generated in previous administrations. This “Anti-retroactivity” clause prevents the public from holding officials to account for their actions in the past. Malaluan said the Nograles version in effect states that no one can request information on past administrations, thus letting former officials off the hook.
Interestingly, it was also under Nograles’s leadership that the House of Representatives failed to ratify the FOI bill on the last day of session last year. Nograles said that the chamber fell short of the quorum by a few members, although an independent count by the PCIJ showed that there were enough congressmen present to put the bill to a vote.
With all these concerns, Malaluan said it is not clear if President Aquino had included the FOI bill in the list of 12 priority measures that he was submitting to Congress.
NUJP Secretary General Rowena Paraan said concerned media organizations have vowed to go on a full-court press for the FOI bill by holding Aquino and his congressional allies to his promise of transparency. Paraan said these moves would take the form of finding FOI “champions” in the press corps of both the House and the Senate, as well as identifying sympathetic editors in the newsrooms of major publications and networks.
The groups also vowed to oppose moves by some members of Congress to hold the FOI hostage to the passage of the proposed Right of Reply bill, which many media groups find unconstitutional. Media groups present during the roundtable discussion include the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, Newsbreak, ABS-CBN, GMA-7, TV5, Businessworld, and the Philippine Center for Photojournalism.