WITH just nine session days to go before the 14th Congress adjourns for the May 2010 elections, leaders of over 100 media and nongovernment organizations urged lawmakers to pass with dispatch the Freedom of Information Act, as a first step to enabling the conduct of clean, credible and orderly elections.
In a joint statement, the Right to Information Right Now! Network appealed to Speaker Prospero Nograles to promptly do one of two things: Lead the chamber in adopting the Senate version of the law, or quickly designate the members of the House of Representatives to the bicameral conference committee that will now have to reconcile the two chambers’s respective versions of the Freedom of Information Act.
Congress resumes session on January 18, and adjourns for the election campaign on February 5.
The Freedom of Information Act, according to the Right to Know Right Now! Network, is a strategic reform legislation that could help foster good governance.
The law, the Network stressed, would merely enable and enforce the people’s right to know that the 1987 Constitution has firmly guaranteed over 23 years ago.
The law, the Network added, will address the lack of implementing procedures that allows routine violation by government officials and personnel of the people’s right to know and to access documents in the possession of public agencies.
“The Freedom of Information law will empower all of us to plant the seeds of strategic and irreversible governance reform in the country,” the Network said in its joint statement. “Only the cynical and the forces of unaccountable and rapacious governance will stand in the way of its passage.”
The Network noted that the House had first acted with welcome speed on the proposed law when it passed on third reading House Bill Number 3732 on May 12, 2008.
The Senate version, Senate Bill No. 3308, was subsequently approved third reading only 19 months later on Dec. 14, 2009.
Today, however, it seems like the House has yet to reaffirm its resolve to pass the law within the nine session days left before Congress adjourns for the election campaign.
The Network assured Nograles that it fully supports the recommendation of Representatives Erin Tañada and Joel Villanueva for full adoption by the House of the Senate version of the law.
After all, the Senate version passed by the Committee on Public Information chaired by Senator Alan Peter Cayetano was at core built on House Bill 3732, the Network said. The amendments in the Senate version represented legitimate concerns of the senators and the stakeholders, and even enhanced the House version.
The Right to Know Right Now! Network is a broad alliance of public-interest groups, environmental protection advocates, independent media groups, print and broadcast journalists, farmers organizations and support groups, women’s organizations, private and public sector labor unions, migrant workers, businessmen, academic institutions, and student and youth organizations.
“When passed into law, the Freedom of Information Act will provide the much needed substantive and procedural details that will make fully operational the Constitutional right of the people to information and the state policy of full public disclosure of all its transactions involving public interest,” the Network said.
The proposed law, it cited, offers a bounty of good provisions, notably:
- A standard and definite procedure in dealing with requests for information. Requests, submitted personally, by mail, or through electronic means, need to be complied with by government agencies in seven days.
- Clear and specific exemptions that public officials and agencies may invoke as grounds for denial of requests. These exceptions pertain to national defense, foreign affairs, law enforcement, personal privacy, trade secrets, Congressional executive sessions, and drafts of adjudicatory decisions, privileged information in legal proceedings, and such other information exempted by law or the Constitution.
- Guarantee of and procedures for administrative or legal appeal, or for review by the Ombudsman or the courts, that citizens may resort to, in case of denial of access to information. Where the denial appears to be valid, the Act gives a citizen the opportunity to prove a greater or overriding public interest in disclosure. Where the denial is illegal, the citizen concerned may file the appropriate criminal or administrative complaint.
- Implementing mechanics for disclosure to the public, without need of request from anyone, of government transactions of utmost public interest such as procurement and infrastructure contracts, concession agreements, loans, and international agreements.
- Numerous mechanisms for the active promotion of openness in government, such as the introduction of standards for the keeping of records, the obligation to publish important organizational information of agencies, and the requirement for government agencies to prepare a Freedom of Information Manual to guide citizens’ access to information.
The Right to Know Right Now! Network noted that the Senate has named its delegates to the bicameral conference committee and transmitted the Freedom of Information bill to the Lower House.
“The ball shifts back to the court of the Lower House to do its part,” the Network said. “We appeal to Speaker Prospero Nograles to respond to the people’s clamor, and on January 18 to lead the House in concurring with S. No. 3308, or at the very least in naming its representatives to the bicameral conference committee and immediately convening the same.”
“As we have done in the Senate during the most crucial session days last year, we will march to the House of Representatives when it resumes session on January 18 to claim our freedom of information. Right to know. Right now!” the Network said. – PCIJ, January 2010