IF THE Freedom of Information bill will not become a law during the Aquino administration, says lawyer Nepomuceno Malaluan, then there’s really low institutional commitment, making the situation no different from that during the Arroyo government, which had resisted it.
A co-convenor of the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition (of which PCIJ is a part), Malaluan has good reason to be impatient. The FOI bill has been languishing in Congress for more than a decade now. For a while, it looked like that was about to end after President Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III expressed support for the measure, with Malacañang even submitting its own version of it. After all, if passed, it should be able to help achieve the Aquino administration’s promise of a more accountable and more transparent government.
Unfortunately, the FOI bill remains in legislative limbo. Last Monday, May 7, the 15th Congress resumed its second regular session with critical announcement from House Speaker Feliciano ‘Sonny’ Belmonte Jr. According to news reports, Belmonte said that the FOI bill, along with the reproductive health bill — another longstanding measure — will not be passed into law before the president’s third State of the Nation Address (SONA) in July.
The Quezon City representative said that the lawmakers will not be able to pass the two bills before the SONA because of “lack of time,” noting that there are more important measures that the House is prioritizing.
At present, bills on FOI are pending before the respective public information committees of the House of Representatives and the Senate. A committee report has yet to be drafted so that the House and Senate versions can be calendared for floor debates — an indication that the bill still has a long way to go.
But Malaluan says, “If there is any time that it’s possible to push this measure, it should be now.”
HE points out that there’s just a few weeks left before the second regular session closes. He also notes that the next or the third regular session of Congress will then be interrupted by the upcoming 2013 elections.
Malaluan and other members of the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition, a group of 150 civil society organizations pushing for the passage of the FOI bill, were at the House of Representatives Monday for an advocacy visit with Speaker Belmonte. Belmonte was unavailable but a member of his staff received the Right to Know group.
Malaluan says the bill awaits concrete institutional action particularly from Senator Gringo Honasan and Rep. Ben Evardone who chair the Senate and House Committees on Public Information, respectively.
According to the lawyer, Honasan has shown strong commitment for the bill, but Evardone has neither set any timetable nor given a definite indication of his support for the passage of the measure.
In a press release, Deputy Speaker Lorenzo ‘Erin’ R. Tañada III, the main proponent of House Bill No. 53, said that lawmakers will hopefully be able to work on the passage of the measure once the Corona impeachment trial draws to a close. “Its passage,” he says, “ensures a more long-term solution for accountability, transparency, and good governance.”
For her part, Annie Gerona, secretary-general of the Public Services Labor Independent Confederation (PSLINK), says that access to information is a fundamental constitutionally guaranteed right, which can also be a “vaccine that will kill the virus of corruption and greed in the country.”
PSLINK is an umbrella organization of 386 public sector unions representing more than 80,000 members.
Gerona says that documents such as the Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) of public officials, bidding documents and government contracts, and civil registry papers and information should be freely and easily provided to citizens.
In particular, Gerona says that SALNs will help citizens trace possible corruption in government while contracts can assist them in finding out where their money or taxes are spent. She adds, “Kailangang malaman iyan ng publiko para mabantayan natin kung iyong kakaunting resources natin ay talagang nagagamit nang maayos. Mahalaga ito kasi hindi lamang iyong henerasyon ngayon ang magbabayad, kundi pati na rin iyong parating na henerasyon. (The public should know about these types of information so that we can monitor if our limited resources are spent judiciously. This is important because this generation is not the only one that will pay, but the future ones as well).”