ADVOCATES of the long-delayed Freedom of Information Act (FOI) have launched a nationwide signature campaign to press President Benigno S. Aquino III and leaders of the House of Representatives to finally pass the FOI bill during the 16th Congress.
The groups launched the online signature campaign at the University of the Philippines on Wednesday to apply more pressure on the President and Congress because of the shrinking window for the 16th Congress to act on the measure. Congress begins its second regular session next month, with little sign that the FOI is in the chamber’s priorities. The groups called on the public to sign up, stressing that the FOI bill is for all Filipinos, and not just for the members of the media as sometimes presented by those opposed to the measure.
The signature campaign is being done through the online group www.change.org. The campaign may be accessed by logging on to www.change.org/tayonaparasafoi or by clicking here.
Rep. Teddy Baguilat, one of the champions of the FOI bill in the House of Representatives, emphasized the need to get the public on board the FOI. He pointed out that many members of Congress have no interest in the FOI bill because there is no noticeable clamor for it in their own districts. This, plus the fact that some legislators fear that an FOI law could make them more vulnerable to criticism.
“Pag kausap mo sila, hindi sila interested kasi wala raw clamor from their districts or constituencies,” Baguilat said. “Sana sa campaign na ito, hindi lang tayo ang mahihikayat. Kailangan maipahiwatig natin sa colleagues natin sa House and the Palace na hindi lang ang NGOs and media pero ang taumbayan ang may hangad sa FOI.”
(When you talk to the congressmen, they are not interested because they say there is no clamor from their districts or constituencies. We hope that this campaign will not just encourage ourselves. We need to address this campaign to our colleagues in the House and in the Palace, that the FOI is desired, not just by NGOs and the media, but by the people.)
The Senate had already passed its own version of the FOI last March 10, but the House version is still stuck at the committee level. A technical working group of the House committee on public information and mass media is still putting together a consolidated version of the bill. Only after a consolidated version of the bill is agreed upon will it be deliberated on at the committee level, and then reported to the plenary. Baguilat and his fellow FOI champions in the chamber are hoping for a stronger call from the general public to put pressure on the congressmen to act faster on the measure.
Rep. Kaka Bag-ao, another FOI champion in the lower chamber, said the FOI is important especially in areas far away from the urban areas. For example, In Dinagat Island, where Bag-ao recently defeated the Ecleo dynasty in the congressional seat, Bag-ao said people were surprised to know that their district had been entitled to the Priority Development Assistance Fund, otherwise known as the pork barrel, all along. Unfortunately, this was also around the same time that the President decided to abolish the PDAF.
For his part, President Aquino has wavered on his earlier commitment to push the FOI. In their latest pronouncements, Palace spokesmen said the President now prefers that the public itself puts pressure on legislators to pass the FOI.
Dean Raul Pangalangan, publisher of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, and representative of the Philippine Press Institute in the campaign launch, said that the media industry recognizes the need for internal reforms. Critics and opponents of the FOI have consistently complained that the FOI would only encourage more abuses by the media. However, Pangalangan said that these reforms must be internal in nature, and must not prevent the people from having their own FOI.
More than a hundred people crowded into the Balay Kalinaw on Wednesday to witness the launch of the signature campaign for the FOI. The FOI campaign network is composed of more than 150 groups from the media, civil society, labor, lawyers groups, and even from the public sector.
Simultaneous sign-ons were also being done in other parts of the country. In Mindanao, the online news cooperative MindaNews also spearheaded its own campaign sign-on. A similar campaign launch was also conducted in Cagayan de Oro City. The advocates will present the consolidated list of signatures to the President a week before he gives his State of the Nation Address in July.