by Cong B. Corrales
WILL THE LONG-DELAYED Freedom of Information (FOI) bill finally make it through the congressional wringer?
No less than the chairman of the house committee that will deliberate on the FOI says he is “hopeful” that the FOI will be passed by the 16th Congress after a decade and a half of fits and starts – and too many stops.
House Committee on Public Information and Mass Media chairman Jorge T. Almonte met early this week with members of the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition, a network of more than 150 pro-transparency groups, to assure them that the committee will work hard to pass the FOI.
“Rest assured (that) in our twilight years, it will be the best opportunity to render a service, such as this (passing of the FOI bill,)” Almonte told members of the coalition in a meeting in his office at the Batasan Pambansa.
Almonte however appeared to be basing his optimism on reports that President Benigno S. Aquino III may finally include the measure in the list of priority bills that the Palace wants Congress to give more attention to. Almonte said that as far as he has read in the newspapers, “President Benigno S. Aquino III will include the FOI in the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council,)” the body that submits legislative priorities to Congress.
“Papasa (na) siguro ito,” Almonte told coalition members.
Coalition members however pointed out that this was no guarantee yet of sure passage of the FOI under President Aquino. Mr. Aquino, when he was still campaigning for the Presidency, had also committed to support the FOI.
However, the FOI barely made it out of the House Committee on Public Information during the 15th Congress, and had to be scrapped by the plenary because of insufficient time to deliberate on it before the 15th Congress adjourned.
Congress leaders then said that the chamber’s apparent inaction on the FOI bill was the result of mixed signals from Malacanang. While the President had initially voiced his support for the FOI, the bill was not included in the list of priority bills by Malacanang. In addition, there were persistent reports that the President still had some misgivings over the measure, even though a Palace committee had already endorsed the bill.
In addition, Almonte noted that several solons at the lower house have refiled new versions of the FOI bill. Almonte asked coalition lead convenor Atty. Nepomuceno Malaluan whether the refiled FOI bills have already incorporated provisions from the final committee report that was submitted in the 15th Congress.
“It would be easier to tackle the new bills then, and the only problem would be the entirely new (bills),” Almonte told coalition members. “I wonder if the Palace version is already included in the refilled bills?”
For his part, Malaluan said they presume the Palace version is still the same as the one earlier drafted by Presidential Communications Group Undersecretary Manuel Quezon, Jr.
“The Palace version already includes the discussion on the contentious issues like on national security as well as the coalition’s inputs,” said Malaluan.
Almonte, who used to be a fiscal, also raised the issue of the exact definition of “public concern and public interest” in matters of information handled by government.
“I have even required my staff to get the Supreme Court’s position on what is public concern. (But) it only says that public concern ‘eludes exact definition,’” he said.
Malaluan insisted that whatever information government has, apart from those exempted as agreed, is of public interest and concern.
“It is not for government officials handling these information to determine what is of public information or concern or not,” said Malaluan.
Almonte said he pointed out these concerns on the FOI bill because he also wants the a law that is practical and easy to implement.
“A law will be easy to comply with when you have exact definitions of terms,” he said.
“(The) coalition is always open to discuss especially on (the) scope of coverage, exceptions and (administrative and criminal) liabilities, and we hope the committee can give a thorough discussion in a timetable which we didn’t achieve before. We are open to dialogue and we hope that whatever differences of opinion we’ll have will not bog down the legislative process,” said Malaluan.
The Philippine Senate has had better progress in acting on the FOI bill, with the Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media chaired by Senator Grace Poe submitting a committee report to the plenary after only two committee hearings. The Senate leadership has already committed to pass the chamber’s version of the FOI within the year.
The House Committee on Public Information, however, is still to schedule a committee hearing to tackle the bill.