Advocates of the long-delayed Freedom of Information Act urged mediamen and the general public to wear red and black ribbons to symbolize rage and grief on Monday, July 23, as President Benigno S. Aquino III delivers his third state of the nation address before the members of Congress.
This even as organizers of the Right to Know Right Now Coalition said they expect President Aquino to openly push the passage of the FOI during his state of the nation address on Monday. Right to Know Right Now lead convenor Nepomuceno Malaluan said FOI advocates expect the President to back up his earlier commitment of support to the FOI by asking Congress to pass the measure during his SONA address.
Malaluan said this would be the clearest sign that the President really wanted an FOI measure. President Aquino had announced this January that he was endorsing the Malacanang version of the FOI bill.
At the same time at least 70 international organizations from 40 countries have written an open letter to President Aquino asking him for quick and firm action on the FOI bill. The letter, sent through the Right to Know Right Now Coalition and coursed through Budget Secretary Florencio Abad and Communications Undersecretary Manuel Quezon III, asks the President to show leadership by example in the Open Government Partnership, where the Philippines is a member of the Steering Committee. The groups say that as a member of the Steering Committee of the OGP, “it is incumbent on the Philippines to adopt right to information legislation.” The OGP is a multilateral initiative that pushes governments to exercise more transparency in order to fight corruption and abuse.
“We are in solidarity with the Filipino people in anticipating your success in adopting the Freedom of Information Act,” The organizations said in their letter to the President. “We believe this will help achieve the goals to which your administration is committed, and be for the greater benefit of the people of the Philippines.”
The signatories include groups from Spain, Bulgaria, Guatemala, Liberia, Kenya, Indonesia, United Kingdom, Thailand, Congo, Ghana, Armenia, the United States, Tanzania, Paraguay, and Columbia.
Critics have pointed out that the President’s announcement last January that he was endorsing the FOI measure to Congress was not backed up by any other effort from Malacanang, raising fears that the President’s endorsement of the FOI was half-hearted.
The FOI bill is still stuck in the House committee on public information, chaired by former newsman and Samar Rep. Ben Evardone. Evardone had told FOI advocates that several legislators had registered their opposition to the FOI, making passage of the measure through his committee difficult.
Evardone claims that some legislators want to insert a rider providing for a right of reply in the FOI bill. The proposal has met strong opposition from media groups who say that a right of reply rider is tantamount to legislating prior restraint.
In addition, several legislators want to ensure that an FOI measure is non-retroactive, meaning the measure would not allow FOI petitioners to dig up information from previous years.
Malaluan said FOI advocates have already waited too long for concrete action from the President on the FOI. Malaluan said that if the measure is not passed before December this year, there will be little chance for it to get through Congress as legislators prepare for the 2013 elections.
Malaluan said if the measure is still not passed by the 15th Congress, it would be a sad and alarming indication of the President’s half-hearted commitment to transparency and accountability. The President had committed to support the FOI during the 2010 election campaign, but had hedged on pressing the measure through Congress by citing some concerns over security and administrative issues.
Rowena Paraan, secretary-general of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, said the NUJP was distributing red and black ribbons for reporters to wear on Monday as the President delivers his SONA.
Paraan said the red color would symbolize rage over the inaction on the FOI measure, while the black color symbolizes grief over the murders of mediamen. Paraan said that many of the media killings could be linked to the issues of transparency and accountability, issues that would be addressed by an FOI measure.
Paraan said the ribbons should send a signal, both to the President and to members of Congress, that the public and the media are getting impatient over the inaction on the FOI.