CIVIL SOCIETY and government leaders who took part in Tuesday’s Freedom of Information (FOI) Town Hall meeting and petition sign-up asked President Benigno S. Aquino III and Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. for concrete and tangible proof that the FOI bill is a priority of the administration, warning that delaying passage of the bill till the last minute would be dangerous and counterproductive.
“Let’s not wait for 2016, let’s not wait for the last session day of Congress (to pass the FOI bill),” said Akbayan party-list Rep. Walden Bello. “”The word from Malacanang is that this is a bill that they support, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. As far as I can see, I have no evident, tangible, empirical proof that Malacanang’s support is really there.”
“Until there is no FOI, there is no true democracy,” Bello added.
Makati Business Club chairman Ramon del Rosario Jr. also expressed support for the FOI, saying it is important that this administration take steps to institutionalize transparency and accountability through a law. Del Rosario said that while the business community believes that the Aquino administration is “pushing an agenda of good governance,” there is a need to institutionalize these practices for succeeding administrations.
“We need to institutionalize transparency and accountability so that future governments would have no choice (but to practice this),” del Rosario said. “The idea of building a culture of accountability and transparency needs to be institutionalized.”
The Right to Know, Right Now! Network organized Tuesday’s Town Hall meeting in order to focus attention on the issues surrounding the FOI bill, which is still pending in the House committee on public information. Earlier this year, the Senate had already passed its own version of the FOI bill on third and final reading. FOI advocates are worried with the slow pace of the bill in the lower chamber, which has traditionally been hesitant to pass an FOI measure.
In a prerecorded interview with House committee on public information chairman Jorge Almonte Jr. that was played during the Town Hall meeting, Almonte assured participants that his committee would finish a consolidated FOI bill and report this to the House floor before the end of the year. Almonte also said that he was “80 percent sure” that the FOI bill would be passed before the 16th Congress adjourns in June 2016. Almonte said he based his confidence on assurances given him by Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr.
Del Rosario said that the business community had also been given the same assurance by Belmonte in a previous forum.
FOI advocates are worried that President Aquino is not keen on having an FOI bill, after he publicly voiced his apprehensions several times that the media has become too powerful.
Senator Grace Poe, chairperson of the Senate committee on public information that had successfully shepherded the FOI bill through the upper chamber, said that the recent scandals rocking the Senate had actually helped to push the FOI through the chamber faster than expected.
Poe said that because several senators had been implicated in the pork barrel scandal, many senators felt the need to show that they also wanted a transparent and accountable government. Interestingly, in his prerecorded interview, Almonte said the same pork barrel scandal is causing some congressmen to hesitate in giving support to the FOI.
“The people in the Senate wanted to prove themselves, that we can do something productive that is actually of good use to the public,” Poe told more than a hundred participants in the FOI Town Hall meeting. It also helped that social media and public awareness had pressured the upper chamber into acting on the FOI bill with greater dispatch.
Diwa party-list Rep. Emmeline Aglipay said that the FOI bill should move faster now in the committee level, now that the “more contentious provisions” dealing with exemptions have already been resolved. Aglipay said the bill should move faster with the pressure being applied by civil society groups.
But Poe also noted the need to make the FOI issue more tangible to ordinary citizens. Poe said the challenge is to make freedom of information more interesting to the public. “Kaya nagkaroon ng PDAF scandal, kasi hindi ninyo alam ang nangyayari sa gobyerno,” she said. (The reason there is a PDAF scandal is because most of you do not know what is happening in your government.)
Philippine Airlines Employees Association President Gerry Rivera echoed Poe’s remarks, saying that many Filipinos are still not able to relate the FOI issue to their more basic concerns such as food and shelter. On the other hand, Rivera said one of the reasons for persistent poverty is because so much corruption in government goes unchecked.
The Town Hall meeting was highlighted by the participation of many student and nongovernment groups from all over the country. During the Town Hall meeting, student groups, schools, and civil society organizations sent messages of support and photos. Participating groups included:
- Students and teachers from Ateneo de Manila University, Miriam College, and Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila;
- Bulacan State University;
- Public Services Labor Independent Confederation (PSLINK) at the Napolcom offices;
- Ifugao State University
- Alliance of Progressive Labor mobile teams in Metro Manila;
- Clark Freeport Zone
- Partido ng Manggagawa representatives from Rosario, Cavite;
- Kaabag sa Sugbo in Cebu City;
- Bislig in Surigao del Sur;
- La Salle Bacolod City;
- Siaton, Negros Oriental;
- and CODE-NGO in Davao City
The Town Hall meeting was also an occasion to drum up support for the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition’s online petition at change.org that now has more than ten thousand signatories in support of the FOI bill. Organizers plan to present the collected signatures to Malacanang in time for President Aquino’s State of the Nation Address in July this year.