CONGRESSMEN SUPPORTIVE of the long-delayed Freedom of Information (FOI) Act are now asking House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. to step in and save the measure from hibernation.
In a press conference held at the House of Representatives, Reps. Erin Tanada III and Walden Bello said there could be no more reasons for House committee on public information chairman Ben Evardone to continue sitting on the FOI.
In fact, Bello and Tanada said, at least 117 congressmen have already signed in their support for the FOI. This support was in fact already made public through the publication of a full page ad in several newspapers, Tanada said.
The 117 signatories include the following:
- five of the six deputy speakers
- two of the vice chairmen of the committee on public information
- 19 of the 26 members of the committee on public information
“Hindi namin maintindihan why the committee chair cannot commit (to the bill,)” Bello said.
Tanada decried the slow pace of committee hearings. In fact, Tanada said, since President Benigno S. Aquino III himself endorsed the measure in January this year, Evardone had only called one committee hearing to discuss the bill.
A second committee hearing was earlier scheduled for today, Monday August 6. However, Evardone cancelled the committee hearing, arguing that the House members need to focus more time in discussing the Reproductive Health bill, which will be voted on tomorrow.
But both Tanada and Bello pointed out that the debate over the RH bill had nothing to do with the FOI, as the FOI was still in the committee level and the RH debates were already on the floor.
“Baka raw bukas, crowded ang schedules because RH will be taken up,” Bello quoted Evardone as saying. “Pero that is in plenary, not in the morning during the committee hearings!”
“We’ve only had one committee hearing since January. Dapat tapos na yan, dapat nasa plenary na yan.” Tanada said.
Tanada said they will discuss the matter with Speaker Belmonte, and look for a way to fast track the FOI measure, or at least get it moving once again. Tanada said it was about time that the Speaker stepped in to unfreeze the FOI bill at the commitee level.
“The Speaker can order the committee hearings to proceed,” Tanada said. Tanada added they were confident that the Speaker was still behind the FOI, as he had earlier declared his support for both the FOI and the RH bill when Congress resumed sessions last month.
Bello for his part said that the 117 signatures they had gathered from fellow Congressmen sends a clear signal to both Evardone and the public that the legislators themselves want an FOI. This, despite some concerns being raised by some Congressmen over the possibility of abuse.
Bellow said they had circulated a copy of the FOI on the House floor for the congressmen to sign on to. After that, pro-FOI legislators did a second round of consultations by asking the signatories if they were willing to have their support for the FOI made public through a newspaper ad. “We did the same rounds, with no resistance from the Congressmen,” Bello said.
Interestingly, Evardone did not sign the statement of support.
Right to Know Right Now Coalition lead convenor Nepomuceno Malaluan said the FOI advocates were worried that Evardone was effectively “dribbling” the matter around in the committee level.
“We believe Congressman Evardone is out to dribble the bill to death,” Malaluan said. “The concern now is whether to allow Evardone to allow the measure to die a second death.”
Both Tanada and Bello say that all the major issues raised against the FOI had already been resolved. The only remaining issue, Tanada says, is a proposal by Rep. Rodolfo Antonino to include a Right to Reply provision in the FOI.
The Right to Reply is being pitched by some legislators as a guarantee that media organziations will print their side of a story. Under the proposal, media organizations must give equal space and prominence to officials who have been the subject of critical stories. Media groups have assailed this proposal as a violation of the freedom of the press to exercise editorial judgement in selecting stories.
However, Bello stressed that even this was “a resolvable issue.”
“The main thing is, pagbotohan na ito,” Bello said.