AFTER MORE THAN a decade of frustration and disappointment, advocates of the long-delayed Freedom of Information (FOI) bill are now trying a new and untested tack to push the measure through the legislative mill.

Spurned by Congress and largely ignored by Malacanang, FOI advocates have launched a campaign for an “indirect initiative,” or a bill that is proposed, not by legislators, but by citizens. The campaign was launched Monday morning, June 24, by the Right to Know Right Now Coalition, a network of more than 150 civil society organizations that have been pushing for the passage of an FOI bill for more than 17 years.

The indirect initiative is provided by Republic Act 6735, or the Initiative and Referendum Act. Under this law, any people’s organization may file a petition for an indirect initiative with Congress.

“The petition shall contain a summary of the chief purposes and contents of the bill that the organization proposes to be enacted into law by the legislature,” the law states.

The law states that the proposal will still go through the same legislative process as any ordinary law, except that “the said initiative bill shall have precedence over the pending legislative measures on the committee.”

With this, FOI proponents are hoping to force the hand of a largely recalcitrant Congress into passing the FOI measure. At the same time, the strategy is meant to show to legislators just how much support the measure has from ordinary citizens and CSOs.

FOI presser audience

The advocates had hoped for passage of the speedy passage of the FOI bill under the administration of President Benigno S. Aquino III. However, the bill has wallowed in Congress because of the lack of interest shown by the President in the measure. This, despite repeated assurances by Aquino that he would support the bill when he was still campaigning for the Presidency.

Many legislators have expressed concerns over an FOI law, saying that the law could encourage more abuses and excesses by the media. In addition, some legislators have even pushed for a non-retroactivity clause in the bill, meaning information gathered prior to the passage of the bill could not be subjected to an FOI petition.

Yet another faction within Congress has pushed for a Right of Reply provision in the FOI bill, claiming this would curb any excesses by the media.

Atty. Nepomuceno Malaluan, lead convenor of the network, says the measure takes into account the spirit and the letter of the bicameral conference committee report of the 14th Congress, which almost passed the measure. As well, the bill takes into account the inputs of the Malacanang Study Group that President Aquino had earlier formed in order to draw up a Palace version of the bill.

The “People’s FOI BIll” takes into account the following:

  • It clarifies the scope of accessible information by defining clearly the list of allowable exceptions, and removes the wide discretion in withholding or granting access.
  • It provides a uniform and speedy procedure for people’s access to information, including how requests are made and responded to, and what remedies are available in case of denial.
  • It enumerates specific acts violative of the right to information that constitute administrative or criminal offenses
  • And it introduces mechanisms to facilitate better citizen access to information, such as providing standards for record keeping.

Malaluan said there are two modes by which the citizenry can propose legislation through Congress. The first and more difficult is direct initiative, wherein ten percent of the registered voters must sign a petition to propose legislation. However, at least three percent of the voters in each legislative district must sign the petition for the proposal to even get off the ground.

The other, more practical method, would be the indirect initiative, which “gives peoples organizations the right to push bills through the legislative mill.”


“Even as we are well aware that many politicians will work to thwart our dream and confine us to passive trust in government, we are determined to win and embrace the passage of the People’s FOI Bill as our collective statement of citizenship,” Malaluan said.

“We therefore invite all people’s organizations and concerned individuals to help us bring this FOI movement to success,” Malaluan added.

Max De Mesa, chairman of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA), stressed that the FOI is not just for the media. In fact, De Mesa said FOI was also a matter of life and death, as could be seen in the case of the missing agricultural activist Jonas Burgos. De Mesa said that not even the Commission on Human Rights has been given any information on the whereabouts of Burgos despite repeated orders by the Supreme Court for his release. Furthermore, De Mesa said the FOI should help stamp out the problem of impunity.

The Kapatiran party, on the other hand, stressed that the measure would “expose vested interests, and lead to the identification of corrupt officials.” The party added that there could be no real “tuwid na daan” without a real FOI.

Representatives from the FOI Youth Initiative (FYI) also committed their time and resources to the campaign for an indirect initiative. They said that even though many have criticized the youth for being too self-oriented or self-centered, the FYI group is determined to prove them wrong. The youth said that they want more active participation by the youth in current affairs beyond the regular electoral exercises that come only once every three years.

Malou Mangahas, executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, said it was important that the FOI be put in place before the 2016 Presidential elections, so that all candidates and politicians would have a firm benchmark with which to start from in terms of FOI. “Kung hindi, para tayong babalik sa pre-EDSA,” Mangahas said. (Otherwise, it is as if we are going back to the pre-EDSA days.)

Several advocates pointed out how long the network has been fighting for the passage of the FOI bill. For example, several advocates who had babies when they started pushing for the FOI bill 17 years ago are now sending the same “babies” to college already – this, while the FOI remains stillborn.

Sonny Fernandez of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines warned the group against legislators who are posing as advocates of the FOI. Fernandez pointed out that some legislators are in fact pushing an FOI version that has a provision that requires a Right of Reply, which many press freedom groups see as a kind of prior restraint and censorship.

Malaluan said the network will file its petition for an indirect initiative with Congress on Monday, July 1. This will be preceded by a vigil with pro-FOI legislators and CSOs.


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