THE LONG-AWAITED Freedom of Information bill finally squeezed past the House Committee on Public Information today amid failed attempts by several legislators to derail the measure, or insert a Right of Reply (ROR) provision into the bill.
Manila’s media carried reports of the measure’s stormy passage through the committee on Tuesday, as FOI proponents battled it out with legislators who insisted first on the need to control alleged abuses by the media before passing an FOI measure.
In the end, 17 pro-FOI legislators voted in favor of passing a consolidated version of the bill. Three legislators voted against the measure, and one abstained.
Nueva Ecija Rep. Rodolfo Antonino, who successfully blocked a vote on the bill in the last hearing, tried to stage a second attempt at a filibuster by speaking for almost an hour, according to a report by GMANewsTV. Antonino repeatedly insisted on inserting an ROR rider, saying that Congress must not give media “unbridled access to information” as this would be prone to abuse.
Proponents of the ROR rider insist that media give those who claim to be the subject of negative reports equal time and prominence in their subsequent replies. Media organizations insist that this is an encroachment on the editorial discretion of media organizations to determine what and how much should see print or airtime.
When legislators backing the FOI tried to put the brakes on Antonino’s apparent soliloquy, Antonino accused them of trying to railroad the passage of the FOI.
The remark drew the ire of FOI advocates who attended the hearing, as the measure has been pending in Congress for the last 14 years. The bill almost got through the congressional wringer in the 14th Congress, lacking merely a vote to ratify the consolidated versions of the House and the Senate.
TV5’s online site Interaksyon said the committee report is expected to be finalized next week, after which it would be reported on the floor.
However, the question of when the committee report will be reported on the floor will be determined by the House leadership, which has so far appeared cool to the FOI bill.
As well, Deputy Majority Floor leader Erin Tanada, one of those who pushed the bill through the committee, said that the public can expect even more debates on the FOI on the Congress floor, raising the possibility of even more delays as the measure goes up against oppositors and a lukewarm House leadership. Malacanang has also appeared to have distanced itself from the measure.
Atty. Nepomuceno Malaluan, convenor of the Right to Know Right Now! coalition, an alliance of 150 media, civil society, and lawyers’ groups pushing for the FOI, said that while the coalition is grateful to its champions in Congress, now is not the time to let their guard down.
“Despite all the odds, we got the vote.” Malaluan said. “The ball now shifts to the leadership of the country. At the House of Representatives, the challenge is for the Majority Floor Leader to calendar the sponsorship of the bill, the interpellation of the bill, and the period of amendments.”
“They have to treat this with urgency if they are really committed to pass the FOI,” Malaluan added.
“It remains an issue of political will, especially now that it is in the hands of the leadership,” he added. “There is no more buffer of a committee.”
Malaluan also pointed out that the measure still has a long way to go through the congressional wringer. “In reality, it is even farther than where we were during GMA’s administration in terms of the legislative stage,” he said.
Malaluan added that the three committee members who voted against the FOI – Reps. Rodolfo Antonino, Lani Mercado, and Amelita Villarosa – all claim that media has abused its right to freedom of the press, thus the need for an ROR rider. Malaluan said the issue of media abuse was being used as a “bogey, as a foil against the passage of the FOI.”