TO SAY THAT THE Freedom of Information (FOI) bill is long delayed may really be quite an understatement.
The House committee on public information and mass media had passed a bill similar to the pending Freedom of Information (FOI) bill as early as 1987, or exactly 26 years ago.
House Bill 498, known then as the Right to Information bill, was authored by then Rep. Raul Roco. Roco would go on to become a distinguished Senator, before attempting a failed run for the Presidency.
A news article published by the defunct The Manila Chronicle in November 1987 announced that the House committee passed Roco’s Right to Information bill “without amendments.”
The news article says the bill requires all government agencies to “publish the rules, opinions, orders, and records they have promulgated, rendered and issued.”
Just like the still-pending FOI bill, Roco’s bill provided for exemptions for classified information “involving national defense and foreign policy.”
The exemptions also include trade secrets and commercial and financial information “classified as privileged or confidential information;” personnel and medical files; and records compiled for law enforcement purposes.
A Manila Standard news article published a month earlier, on October 1987, quoted Roco as saying that there were similar statutes in the United States, “where right of information has not even been expressedly embodied in the Constitution.”
The Standard article said the information to be made available to the public would include statements of policy and interpretations adopted by an agency, as well as administrative staff manuals and instructions to staff affecting members of the public.
The bill’s coauthors include then Maguindanao Representative and now Moro Islamic Liberation Front negotiator Michael Mastura; Reps. Wilfredo Enverga, and Bienvenido Marquez.
It is not clear why Roco’s bill was never passed into law. What is clear is that similar moves to pass a Freedom of Information bill have still been unsuccessful, 26 years later.
In fact, while Roco’s bill breezed easily through the House committee on public information, present day versions of the bill are barely able to squeeze through the committee level.
In the 15th Congress, the FOI bill was delayed for so long at the committee level that there was no longer enough time for plenary debates before the 15th Congress adjourned. Legislators later complained that they were getting mixed signals from Malacanang on whether to support the measure or not.
President Benigno S. Aquino had earlier committed to the speedy passage of the FOI when he was still campaigning for the presidency. Since assuming the presidency, however, the President has voiced several concerns over the possible abuse of the bill by the media. The President has also not endorsed the measure as a priority bill for Congress’ speedy action.
For the 16th Congress, the House committee on public information is still to schedule committee hearings on the matter. This, even though the Senate committee on public information has already reported its own version on the Senate floor, with a commitment from the Senate leadership of the passage of the Senate version of the FOI before yearend.