THE SENATE on Monday approved on third and final reading the chamber’s version of the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill, even as the version of the House of Representatives is still to be taken up on the floor.
Senate Bill 3208, or the People’s Ownership of Government Information (POGI) Act of 2012 was approved with a vote by 17 Senators, with no abstentions or votes against the measure, according to a statement released by the Senate public information office.
The POGI bill sets up a mechanism that enables private citizens to access government information. More than that, the bill shifts the burden to the government agencies that have custody of the information. With the measure, government agencies will now have to justify any need for secrecy or privacy. Previously, private citizens who want to access this information were the ones who had to justify their need and explain their motives for wanting the information.
Right to Know Right Now! lead convenor Nepomuceno Malaluan lauded the Senate’s speedy passage of the bill, saying this showed a clear commitment on the part of the Senate leadership in favor of transparency, accountability, and the public’s right to know. Malaluan said they wished that the House of Representatives could also exhibit this same commitment by acting speedily on the lower chamber’s version of the bill.
Malaluan said the passage of the Senate version “shows the chamber’s readiness to embrace a radical institutional reform in governance in a way that really empowers the Filipino people.”
Malaluan stressed that President Benigno S. Aquino III and Speaker Feliciano Belmonte can match the Senate’s commitment to FOI by certifying the bill as urgent, and pressing allies in the lower chamber to act immediately on the measure. The House version was approved late November in the committee level, and is still to be tackled in the plenary.
The problem, Malaluan said, is that there would only be nine session days left after Congress adjourns for the Christmas break on December 20. Congress resumes session on January 21, and again goes on break on February 8. Malaluan worries that without any clear signals from Malacanang or the House leadership, the FOI would again be consigned to the wayside while legislators prepare for the 2013 elections.
“In crunch time like this, we look to the political promises of the President which, as he has shown in the Reproductive Health bill and the Sin Tax bill, can be a necessary component in bills where there is division or strong resistnace,” he said. “Our battle cry is for him to certify this bill as urgent.”
The bill has slumbered in the lower chamber as legislators fumbled and fudged over its passage. Several legislators have been blocking the measure, insisting that the bill would only be abused by the media. In addition, several legislators have insisted on inserting a provision for a Right of Reply (ROR) in the measure. The ROR, as envisioned by legislators, would require media organizations to allot time, space, and prominence to officials who feel alluded to by what they perceive to be negative reports. Media organizations have opposed the ROR, saying that any attempt to legislate content would be a violation of the freedom of the press.
The Senate version provides for disclosure of information of public interest through posting on government websites. In addition, government agencies must grant requests for access to information within 15 days from receipt of a request. There are exceptions though – information pertaining to national security, or diplomatic and international negotiations, as well as tactical information that may have an impact on ongoing operations may not be divulged.
“It is the state’s responsibility to make information available to the public, to set up practical and viable mechanisms to ensure the availability of information and prevent its abuse,” said the bill’s principal author, Senator Gregorio Honasan. The bill was co-sponsored by Senators Loren Legarda, Alan Peter Cayetano, Antonio Trillanes IV and Franklin Drilon.