MEDIA ORGANIZATIONS warned that Congress is fast running out of time in passing the Freedom of Information Act, even as legislators are also running out of excuses to sit on the measure.
The House committee on public information led by Rep. Ben Evardone was earlier scheduled to hold another committee hearing on the FOI bill on August 7, Tuesday. However, House leaders over the weekend said they were again deferring the measure indefinitely to allow Congress to deliberate on the Reproductive Health Bill.
Atty. Nepomuceno Malaluan, lead convenor of the Right to Know Right Now! Coalition, said FOI advocates had been worried that Congress leaders would find another reason to defer a decision on the FOI. This, even as President Benigno S. Aquino III himself had already endorsed the measure as early as January this year.
Despite this, Malaluan said Evardona appeared to be uninterested in holding public hearings on the FOI bill. The hearings only began in March, or nearly three months after the President’s endorsement of the bill. Hearings were also seldom calendared, as Evardona claimed he was treading carefully around some concerns being raised by his colleagues in Congress over the FOI.
Malaluan expressed concern that the House leadership, or Evardone at the very least, was really intent on killing the measure.
“He is out to kill this bill,” Malaluan told a meeting of FOI advocates on Friday. “Where is the House leadeship on this?”
“Ang tagal bago mag close ang sessions, pero ayaw mag hearing ni Congressman Evardone,” Malaluan added.
Malaluan revealed how several legislators had tried to water down the bill, or insert provisions that would defeat its purpose of opening the doors to transparency and accountability in government. Some of the proposals appeared to border on the ridiculous.
One version of the bill earlier pushed by Rep. Karlo Nograles, son of former House Speaker Prospero Nograles, had earlier pushed a bill that provides a non-retroactive clause. This would have meant that all information created or received after the effectivity of the law would not be covered by an FOI measure. The FOI would also only cover information relating to the incumbent administration.
“In other words, hindi saklaw ang information ng gobyerno before the effectivity of that law, and tuwing matatapos ang isang administration, hindi nanaman saklaw ng batas ang susunod,” Malaluan said.
Another version pushed by Rep. Rodolfo Antonino includes a provision for a Right to Reply. This means officials who feel they were the subject of negative news reports must be given equal space and prominence in the media to give their reply. Media groups have rejected this concept as a violation of press freedom and the guarantee against prior restraint. The proposal has, however, gained substantial traction in the lower House.
However, Malaluan pointed out that these were minor issues that could be treated separately, if at all. For example, the Right of Reply provision should not be included in the FOI bill because the right to information as guaranteed by the Constitution should not be held hostage by the personal concerns of public officials, Malaluan said.
On the other hand, all the other more substantial issues previously raised by Malacanang had already been resolved in various meetings in the last two years. In fact, Malaluan said, this was the reason put forward by Malacanang for its two-year delay in pushing fot the FOI.
For example, the proposal by Malacanang to create an information commission has already been shelved. As well, the Malacanang version of the FOI still grants executive privilege to the Chief Executive, but does not extend this privilege to other officials. An earlier version pushed by the Palace would have included other less senior officials in the scope of executive privilege.
Malaluan also dismissed suggestions that an FOI law was no longer a priority since the Aquino administration was already practicing transparency.
Malaluan pointed out that while the Aquino government “can be transparent as a matter of policy,” what is more important is to put that transparency down in law.
“While you retain power over it (transparency), you can release or you can withold information. You can choose what you want to release,” Malaluan said.
“But once it becomes a matter of right, and you confirm it in this case, then it changes the whole ballgame,” he added.
At the same time Malaluan announced that the Right to Know Right Now! Coalition will hold a press conference with members of Congress who are supportive of the FOI on Monday, August 6, at the House Press Center.
Malaluan said Akbayan! Party-List Rep. Walden Bello will show to the public the signatures of at least 110 members of the House of Representatives who have already committed to pass the FOI during the 15th Congress.
Bello and other FOI supporters in the House will also call on Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. and President Aquino to “prevail upon” Evardone to act on the measure.