MEDIA AGENCIES across the Philippines are demanding that Congress take care of “unfinished business” by passing the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill before going on extended break to prepare for the 2013 midterm elections.
In a pooled editorial published by various national, regional, and local media organizations beginning Monday (January 14), media organizations belonging to the Philippine Press Institute, the national association of newspapers, and the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP), the national association of broadcasters in the country, called on congressmen to fulfill all the promises they made of transparency and accountability when they campaigned for office in the previous election.
The editorial noted that there will only be nine working days left for Congress when it resumes session on January 21, since it adjourns for an extended break on February 6. After February 6, many legislators are expected to start preparing for their reelection bid in the May 2013 midterm elections.
This allows for a very tight schedule if ever Congress does decide to calendar the FOI bill for floor debates. The measure was approved in the House committee level late last year, and there is no indication yet that the bill will be prioritized by the House leadership.
On the other hand, the Senate has already approved its version of the FOI on third and final reading.
“We, the newspapers, television networks, radio stations, online and independent media agencies, and citizen journalists of this nation state here and clearly now our expectations of the House of Representatives: Get back to work, assure a quorum, pass the FOI bill in your last nine session days,” the pooled editorial read. “You have all promised and sworn to serve by matuwid na daan, transparency, and accountability in government, and we expect nothing less than clear, concrete results on your promises.”
The pooled editorial emphasized that the passage of the FOI bill is “a constitutional obligation” that overrules other “private concerns” by legislators that the measure could be abused by media.
Several legislators have been trying to block passage of the FOI by insisting on a rider that provides for a right-of-reply (ROR), where officials are to be guaranteed free and equal print and airtime to give their side on an issue. The Philippine media has insisted that the ROR provision violates the freedom of the press, since it effectively legislates editorial content.
“Lawmakers that they are, they must be well aware of the Constitutional principle of “a public office is a public trust,” the very reason why the news media and all citizens must pry and probe, critique and censure, and report news good and bad about issues and events vested with public interest,” the editorial read.
The pooled editorial is just part of a series of actions programmed by media organizations all over the country to remind legislators of the importance of the FOI. Media groups are concerned that the non-passage of the FOI in the last nine session days would mean the bill would go back to square one with the incoming 16th Congress.
The pooled editorial published by members of the PPI and the KBP reads as follows:
Pass the FOI bill now
QUICK and correct action. This is the best and justly deserved path for the House of Representatives to take on the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill.
Slow and wrong. This is the worst and justly reasonable judgment that Filipino voters would have of the House members, most especially of those seeking reelection in May 2013, should the FOI fail to pass.
Time, the dribble drivel in the House, and an Executive seemingly less than lame in his support for the bill – the odds seem stacked against the passage of the FOI bill in the 15th Congress. This is even as the Senate had passed its version of the bill on third and final reading before Christmas last.
Only nine session days remain from Jan. 21, when lawmakers return to work after a month-long holiday break, to Feb. 6, 2013, after which lawmakers will have another extended break and plunge into election campaign mode. They will have just three more session days in June intended mainly for closing ceremonies, before adjourning sine die to give way to the incoming 16th Congress on June 30, 2013.
Failure by the incumbent House to pass the FOI up to third reading, so it could be submitted to bicameral action thereafter, in the coming nine session days is certain death for the bill in the 15th Congress. Legislative work on the bill will revert to step one yet again in the 16th.
This is why only quick, focused action to pass the FOI bill is the absolutely correct path for the 280-odd members of the House to take, in their last nine session days before the election campaign kicks off.
It avoids wasteful spending of scarce taxpayers’ money on legislative work that often start and end as mere verbal jousts among lawmakers.
It is, most assuredly, also the right thing for the House to do.
The FOI bill implements the state policy of transparency and accountability that the Constitution we Filipinos ratified in 1987 explicitly and fully guarantees.
Passing the FOI bill is thus a constitutional obligation that lawmakers have had to fulfill, to do right by all citizens, from 25 years ago.
Passing the FOI bill is a public good that trumps any and all supposed private concerns that a few lawmakers claim are the reasons why they do not favor FOI and insist on loading it up with right-of-reply (ROR) provision. They have had, they say, fallen victim to negative reporting by the news media.
Lawmakers that they are, they must be well aware of the Constitutional principle of “a public office is a public trust,” the very reason why the news media and all citizens must pry and probe, critique and censure, and report news good and bad about issues and events vested with public interest.
Libel laws, codes of ethics, and self-regulation mechanisms are fully observed in most news media agencies. There are no reasons that are writ in law for these few lawmakers opposed to the FOI to now dangle ROR as a precondition to their vote. In this instance, it is clear that to them, ROR is truly just a monkey wrench to kill the bill.
We, the newspapers, television networks, radio stations, online and independent media agencies, and citizen journalists of this nation state here and clearly now our expectations of the House of Representatives: Get back to work, assure a quorum, pass the FOI bill in your last nine session days.
You have all promised and sworn to serve by matuwid na daan, transparency, and accountability in government, and we expect nothing less than clear, concrete results on your promises.
It is election season once more and you are all likely to offer more promises to get elected. But before we vote, we ask you to finish your unfinished business. Start with one you swore to deliver two decades and a half ago: Pass the FOI bill now.
Here are screengrabs of some of the news organizations that published the pooled editorial:
For its part, the Manila Times ran its own editorial last January 11 stating that it has not yet given up on the FOI bill. The Times said the Aquino administration and Congress should “realize by this time” that the Philippine media was not giving up easily on the FOI. “We still want to see the act passed into law despite misinformed parties like House Minority Leader Danila Suarez promising to block the bill at all cost.
“We consider the right to access government records as important as any right guaranteed by our Constitution,” the Times editorial read. “Democracy without transparency in government and its institutions is no democracy at all.”