“ANG IPINANGAKO ko talaga is, during the 16th Congress. Bitayin ninyo ako kung matapos ito at hindi pa nakakapasa.”

[What I have promised was, during the 16th Congress (it will pass). When it ends and this does no pass, you can hang me.”]

Thus spoke Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr.in March 2014, in response to reporters’ queries about when the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill will pass in the House of Representatives. That early, the FOI bill had already hurdled third and final reading in the Senate.

Belmonte, leader of the House, had practically offered his head to proclaim what was supposedly his firm commitment to get the FOI bill passed in the lower chamber.

Was he just lying or bragging or both?

Words are apparently cheap to Belmonte. His verbal affirmation has not been followed by affirmative action for the FOI bill in the last 14 months.

In the view of the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition of 160 civil society organizations pushing for the FOI bill’s passage, Belmonte has merely paid lip service to a reform legislation that has been pending in Congress over the last 14 years.

Belmonte’s House, the Coalition said, seems to be no different from that led in the 14th Congress by Speaker Prospero Nograles Jr., an ally of then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

At the time, the FOI bill was in its final stage of ratification by the House but Nograles and Arroyo’s allies, feigning a lack of quorum, postponed plenary vote until the 14th Congress adjourned sine die.

The Right to Know Coalition, in a statement issued on the eve of the sixth and last state of the nation address of President Benigno S. Aquino III, called out Belmonte and his “chief enforcer,” Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II, for their failure to lead the FOI to passage.

The 16th Congress opens its third and last regular session tomorrow, July 27. It will adjourn sine die before the May 2016 elections.

A number of factors bode ill for the FOI bill. It seems headed, once again, to a tragic end in the 16th Congress.

These include the long recess intervals (i.e. Christmas break, Holy Week break); the frequent lack of a quorum because of absentee lawmakers; the election campaign that will see many politicians running for re-election; a long list of similarly urgent legislation (i.e. 2016 national budget, Bangsamoro Basic Law); and tepid support from Aquino, Belmonte, and Gonzales.

Belmonte, who was also Speaker of the 15th Congress (2010-13) when the Aquino-led Liberal Party Coalition gained control of the House, has hardly done anything to accelerate the House’s work on the FOI bill in the last six years.

Aquino, meanwhile, has largely been ambivalent and inchoate about his true position on the FOI bill, even as he had promised as a candidate for President in 2010 that he will support its passage. –PCIJ, July 2015

The statement of the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition follows:

Speaker’s support for FOI mere lip service

AT AROUND the time that the Senate approved the FOI bill on Third Reading in March 2014, House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. boldly proclaimed: “Ang ipinangako ko talaga is during the 16th Congress. Bitayin ninyo ako kung matapos ito at hindi pa nakakapasa.”

Yet on the ground, the Speaker has not lifted a finger to give FOI a positive push. The bill has advanced at the committee level through the efforts of the committee chair, House champions and FOI advocates, at times even with counter-signals from the House leadership.

One clear evidence of the Speaker’s lack of actual commitment to advancing the FOI bill was his failure to put the FOI on the agenda, even for just its sponsorship in plenary, before Congress went to recess last June. This, despite the Committee chair and authors expressing readiness for the bill’s sponsorship and defense, and a letter of appeal from advocates.

The Speaker, under the rules, is the political and administrative head of the House of Representatives. He is responsible for the overall management of the proceedings of the House. He is primarily responsible for preparing the legislative agenda for every regular session, with the view of ensuring the full deliberation and swift approval especially of priority measures.

With the Speaker only paying lip service to FOI, the FOI Tracker rating goes down to 25. It will just be a matter of time for his chief enforcer, Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II, to drive the final nail in the coffin of the FOI bill in the 16th Congress.

When all excuses are said and done, we see the House of Belmonte no different from the House of Prospero Nograles Jr. on FOI.”

Related links:

2015 will be a reckoning of promises on FOI

BT: Freedom of Information bill, nakabinbin pa rin sa Kongreso

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