by Cong B. Corrales
IT COULD QUITE POSSIBLY BE the shortest period any bill has had to stay at the committee level.
The Freedom of Information (FOI) bill, the long-delayed measure that would have guaranteed ordinary citizens freer access to government information, breezed through the Senate committee on public information and mass media on Wednesday. Committee chairperson Senator Grace Poe-Llamanzares told reporters that the bill had already been approved at the committee level since the committee members had alrady agreed on the basic provisions of the measure.
It was only the second time the committee had met to consider the measure. The first was just last September 4.
This means the bill would soon be reported to the plenary for consideration and approval.
Right to Know Right Now! Coalition convenor Nepomuceno Malaluan hailed the speedy Senate action on the measure, saying it bodes well on the future of the bill in the upper chamber.
FOI advocates however acknowledge that the real battle for the FOI has always been in the lower chamber, where the measure has its most bitter oppositors.
Llamanzares said they will submit the committee report to the floor by September 24, and sponsor the measure for plenary debate the following day. She said they are hopeful that the bill would be approved by the upper chamber within the year.
Malaluan said the coalition is “very happy that the chair has adopted a specific timetable for the passage of the FOI in the Senate.”
“They intend to complete the report and sponsorship next week,” Malaluan said. “This will be the fastest ever- historically- for a chamber to pass a bill.”
“All are agreed on a renewed sense of urgency (for) the measure (to pass) in light of the PDAF scandal,” he added.
National Union of Journalists of the Philippines national chairperson Rowena Paraan said the Senate has been consistent in passing the bill in both the 14th and 15th Congresses.
“With the PDAF scandal making people aware of the breadth and depth of corruption in the government and the legislators defensive about their pork, now is the best time for FOI advocates to push for its legislation.” Paraan said. “However we must clarify that it has always been the lower house that is problematic when it comes to FOI. The House is more vulnerable to the whims of Malacanang.”
On Tuesday, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr told reporters that the FOI bill will be put to a vote in the 16th Congress. He said Malacanang has decided to include the bill under the transparency and accountability measures in the list of proposed bills it has considered urgent.
NUJP vice chairman Sonny Fernandez however cautioned that the administration could very easily change its mind if it perceives that anger over the pork barrel corruption scandal is waning.
Malaluan for his part challenged the House of Representatives to show its commitment to transparency, and put meat to Belmonte’s talk.
“With respect to the House, we need more than any statement of support. We need similar concrete actions, which means, kailangan na simulan ang committee procedures. Konkretong batayan because of the experiences that we have had,” Malaluan said.
Llamanzares also told reporters that she is opposed to any kind of censorship of the media, and reiterated her support for self regulation in the media industry.
She said that there are ethical standards already in place and that any right of reply provision, as proposed by several legislators in the lower chamber, would just be “another form of censorship.”