AFTER LENGTHY DISCUSSIONS, deliberations, and months of back-and-forth communications with the President’s own staff, Freedom of Information (FOI) bill advocates are still puzzled by concerns being voiced by President Benigno S. Aquino over the measure.
During the first hearing on the FOI bill by the Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media on Wednesday, Right to Know Right Now! Coalition lead convenor Nepomuceno Malaluan said the bill has already undergone so many revisions during the 15th or last Congress because of “concerns expressed by PNoy at the start of his term.”
In fact, FOI advocates had adopted several suggestions made by officials from the Presidential Communications Office just so the bill could move forward with the President’s blessing. In the end, a consolidated version was submitted to Congress, but still without the President’s outright endorsement. That version failed to get through the 15th Congress, with legislators citing the lack of a Presidential endorsement as one of the key issues working against the measure.
Earlier this week, the Philippine Daily Inquirer quoted President Aquino as saying that he was worried that the FOI bill would hinder free and frank discussions in his cabinet meetings. In fact, the President was quoted as saying, this was his main concern over the FOI. Read the Inquirer story here
Malaluan told the committee chaired by Senator Grace Poe-Llamanzares that the FOI advocates had already addressed this issue with the bill filed in the 15th Congress.
“The changes were principally key amendments proposed by Malacanang to address the concerns raised by the executive bureaucracy as well as concerns raised by President Aquino at the start of his term,” Malaluan told the committee.
“(The bill) adopted a new exception on presidential communications privilege, or more popularly known as executive privilege, to address President Aquino’s concern over his access to the free and frank opinions and discussions with his closest advisers,” Malaluan added.
Yet another amendment proposed by Malacanang and adopted by FOI advocates was the adoption of the phrase “national security” in the exceptions. Malaluan said this “provided the executive greater flexibility than the bicameral version which confined national security matters to defense and foreign affairs.”
“This addresses the concerns by President Aquino over the adequacy of the protection of national security matters,” he said.
To balance the expansion of exceptions and to prevent the bill from getting watered down by the Palace proposals, Malaluan said safeguards in the FOI were strengthened.
These safeguards include:
- The legal presumption in favor of access to information;
- Exceptions must be strictly construed;
- Exceptions cannot be invoked to cover crime, wrongdoing, or graft and corruption;
- If the exempted information can be segregated from other information, then the non-exempt information may be released.
In fact, Malaluan said that Malacanang officials were so engaged in drafting the bill that was submitted to the 15th Congress that the Palace even “expanded the list of documents for mandatory disclosure” to the public.
This prompted Senator Joseph Victor Ejercito to ask Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Undersecretary Manuel L. Quezon if the President was in fact supporting the FOI. Ejercito pointed out that the bill was taken out of the list of priority measures submitted by the Palace to the 15th Congress.
To this, Quezon replied: “The President supports the administration bill before the committee.”
For her part, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism Executive Director Malou Mangahas told the committee that the Aquino administration has made strides in instituting a degree of transparency. However, without an FOI law, this transparency will only be token in nature.
Mangahas said that transparency is of limited value without the principle of accountability, and the degree of transparency so far allowed under the Aquino administration does not yet foster a sense of public accountability.
“There is a new maturity among civil service organizations, that transparency and accountability are inseparable principles,” Mangahas told the committee. “You cannot just disclose documents of projects without telling the citizens how the funds were spent, what projects were completed, and who got the money.”