ADVOCATES of the long-delayed Freedom of Information bill converge at the Senate on Wednesday as the Senate begins deliberations on several versions of the FOI bill now pending before the upper chamber.
This, even as news reports quoted Senate President Franklin Drilon as saying that he has already asked the Senate Committee on Public Information to fast-track deliberations on the bill so that the chamber could vote on the measure within the month.
If true, Drilon’s statement adds new impetus to efforts by FOI advocates to finally get the FOI bill passed by Congress and signed by an apparently reluctant President Benigno S. Aquino III. Advocates have been trying to get an FOI bill through the legislative mill for more than 14 years. The bills however have been blocked by successive congresses because of resistance from several lawmakers who claim that media would abuse the FOI.
Historically, however, the path of most resistance has always been the House of Representatives, where various congressmen have either tried to insert all sorts of preconditions, or blocked the bill outright.
Leaders of the Right to Know Right Now! Coalition, a broad alliance of 150 civil society groups, have been invited to the hearing of the Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media chaired by Senator Grace Poe-Llamanzares on Wednesday to discuss the bill. The Coalition will be represented by lead convenor Atty. Nepomuceno Malaluan.
The committee is expected to discuss several FOI related bills that are now pending before the 16th Congress, as well as the FOI version that a special Malacanang committee had drafted for the 15th Congress but had failed to make it through the congressional wringer before Congress adjourned.
Malaluan is also expected to discuss the pertinent points of an FOI bill that the Coalition had submitted to Congress through an indirect initiative, and how this bill had already addressed the concerns that President Aquino has again raised over the FOI measure.
The President was earlier quoted as saying that there were several sticky points that have to be ironed out first before the Palace endorses an FOI bill. These include concerns that cabinet members would not be candid or forthright in their discussions because of concerns that these would be made public.
Malaluan says this concern had already been addressed in the version agreed upon by the Coalition and the President’s own communications group during the 15th Congress. The Coalition had agreed to give presidential communications a degree of privacy, subject to certain safeguards to ensure that the privilege is not used to cover up crime, wrongdoing, or graft and corruption.
Drilon had been quoted by Senate reporters as saying that he wants the bill acted on speedily, and said that he prefers that the committee report be prepared “after one or two weeks.”
This, because Drilon said he wants floor deliberations on the bill to begin before the Senate goes on recess on September 28.
Read Interaksyon’s story on Drilon’s position on the FOI here.
At the same time, the Public Services Labor Independent Confederation (PSLINK), a network of public sector unions representing 80,000 government employees, called on legislators to act quickly on the FOI bill.
The group said that while the Constitution guarantees transparency and accountability, these principles are often violated by public officials who refuse to recognize the public’s right to know.
Moreover, the group pointed out that the FOI bill is important, not just to the media, but “to all sectors of the society… including the ordinary rank and file public sector workers.”
FOI advocates, members of the Right to Know Right Now! Coalition, and many other interested groups are expected to attend Wednesday’s hearing of the Senate Committee on Public Information.