MALACANANG on Friday renewed its commitment to ensure the passage of the long-delayed Freedom of Information (FOI) bill before the term of President Benigno S. Aquino III’s term ends in 2016, claiming the final FOI version would have even more unique provisions allowing easier access to government data.
The assurance was given by Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda during a meeting with leaders of the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition who delivered the signatures of more than 38,000 people who are asking the President and Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. to speed up the passage of the FOI bill.
Coalition convenor Atty. Nepomuceno Malaluan led representatives of 15 media and civil society groups in bringing the 3,000 pages of signatures to Malacanang’s Osmena Hall to be received by Lacierda. The signatures were collected both through an online petition on Change.org, and through offline signature booths scattered throughout the country.
In his meeting with coalition members, Lacierda said the President will stand by his word that the FOI will be passed within his term. This, even as coalition members expressed concern that the measure has still not been listed as a priority bill by Malacanang.
“It is a commitment,” Lacierda said. “(The President) has said it publicly that he expects the FOI before the end of his term.”
Lacierda also assured the FOI advocates that the administration is not dropping the FOI bill in favor of its own open data push. Earlier this year, the Aquino government launched its own government data portal Data.gov.ph, where it has begun making more information publicly available. While FOI advocates welcome the development of a government data portal, they say that this cannot take the place of a law granting any citizen access to information on demand.
Lacierda said the Aquino government is committed to both open data and to the FOI, and in fact intends to marry the two through the FOI law. He said this is being done with the help of Reps. Dina Abad and Leni Robredo, who are introducing open data provisions in the FOI bill.
“Open data democratizes FOI by ensuring that the request of one person should be given to the public, what we call release to one, release to all,” Lacierda said. “Also as part of open data, we require government agencies to upload to their websites.”
“Open data does not replace FOI,” Lacierda said.
“We recognize that there is (a) need to be transparent. We need a legislation that will truly bind the three branches of government,” Lacierda said.
In a press conference after the dialogue with Lacierda, Malaluan said the FOI advocates were encouraged by what he called “material differences” in the President’s apparent attitude towards the FOI. Malaluan said the President’s support for the FOI is now much clearer than in the last four years.
“We are happy with his statement at the Daylight Dialogue (last July 15) assuring the passage of the FOI. It was the first time it was said after he took his oath during his inauguration,” Malaluan said. “After that, it was not heard of again.”
“So these material differences we acknowledge , but at the end of the day, it is how the next concrete actions are done. Moving forward, that is what we will watch out for,” Malaluan added.
“We go by the benchmarks. Malaking kaibahan ngayon. First, we have Lacierda saying they are integrating the open data program with the FOI. Second, we know that (Manuel Luis) Manolo (Quezon III) regularly attends the TWG (technical working group) meetings. Third, PNoy, for the first time since his oath-taking, has said on live television that there will be an FOI within his term,” explained Malaluan.
Peter Perfecto, Executive Director of the Makati Business Club, said the business community believes that the FOI was the one thing that the Aquino government should have “accelerated.”
In fact, Perfecto joked, the FOI should be the new DAP, or Disclosure Acceleration Program, a play of the acronym for the controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) that has come under fire recently.
“This is the new DAP. Instead of disbursements, this time we expect to accelerate disclosures,” Perfecto said in jest to Lacierda. “It’s the disclosure acceleration program.”
“If there is one thing this government should have accelerated a long time ago, it is the passage of the FOI law,” he added.
Perfecto added that it would be best if the President could mention his support for the FOI in his State of the Nation Address on Monday, July 28.
As of Friday, signatories of the online petition through Change.org have reached 16,200 and another 21,900 from actual signature collection points all over the country—for a total of more than 38,100 signatures.
Inday Espina-Varona, campaigns director of Change.org Philippines said that the online petition, “Tayo Na Para sa FOI,” is one of the petitions with the most number of signatories that they have had.
“This petition is even bigger than the Yolanda petition,” she told Lacierda.
The roster of signatories represent Filipinos from all walks of life. There were Filipinos from 76 other countries who signified their support for the FOI.
For his part, Vincent Lazatin, executive director of the Transparency and Accountability Network said that the President should “mobilize his allies” in the Lower House.
“Walang tuwid na daan kung walang FOI. Without access to information, the people cannot truly participate in governance,” said Lazatin.
When asked if he was convinced with Lacierda’s assurance, Malaluan said that it depends on the concrete actions the administration has taken. He added that in his assessment it appear the passage of the FOI bill seemed likely.