Advocates make one final push for FOI
MANILA, Philippines - All eyes will be on the House of Representatives when Congress resumes session on Monday, January 21, as advocates await the fate of the Freedom of Information Act in the 15th Congress.
Whether or not the FOI bill -- which seeks to institutionalize fast procedures in obtaining documents of high public interest -- will become a law this year is now up to the House. The Senate already passed its version of the measure on 3rd and final reading in December 2012.
There are only 9 session days left in the legislative calendar, but House committee on public information chairman Rep Ben Evardone has yet to sponsor the bill on the floor.
Although Speaker Feliciano "Sonny" Belmonte Jr has given assurances that the FOI will be a priority measure in the last 3 weeks of session, the bill might be further derailed by quorum issues and killer provisions.
Allow interpellations even without quorum
In the 14th Congress, the House failed to ratify the measure due to lack of quorum. Now that the election season is here, mustering a quorum is expected to be an issue.
Quezon Rep Lorenzo "Erin" Tañada has a solution to move proceedings forward: allow lawmakers to conduct debates next week even without a quorum.
"This is nothing new. This has happened before. We can allow interpellation and debate even if there are only 10 people," Tañada, principal author of the bill, said in a press conference on Friday, January 18.
Ifugao Rep Teddy Baguilat said proponents want interpellations to be concluded by next week to give the bill a fighting chance.
President Aquino's certification
In a Congress that has managed to pass difficult bills on sin tax and reproductive health with the help of President Benigno Aquino III's urgent certification, what chance does the FOI have in getting an urgent stamp?
As early as March 2012, the House already adopted Malacañang's version of the measure. But President Aquino has since remained non-commital on whether he wants an FOI law in the 15th Congress.
"There are only a few session days left for Congress. But that is their process, right? We have already provided our inputs on the FOI. Our understanding is that they have accepted the amendments that we have proposed so we are waiting for the finished output," he earlier told reporters in Cebu.
Unlike the divisive reproductive health law, the President is taking a passive approach. The message is: act on the bill first before I make my move.
"Based on my reading [of the situation], you can perhaps get Malacañang's support on the 3rd reading but for the moment, sariling kayod muna for the champions," Baguilat said.
An urgent stamp allows lawmakers to approve the bill on 2nd reading and 3rd reading on the same day, instead of having to wait for 3 days as House Rules state.
A total of 117 lawmakers have already pledged support for the bill. There is no party stand, Baguilat said, but the bill needs the push of House leaders so that it can move in the legislative mill.
"We will find out next week what the readings are coming from the House [leaders]," he said.
Insertion of ROR - unacceptable
The issue of the right-of-reply (ROR) provision -- which will require media outfits to give space to individuals mentioned in reports -- is expected to hound the proceedings. But advocates are adamant that it has no place in the FOI bill.
"Putting it in FOI is like mixing apples with oranges and it is really meant to be a killer amendment," said Akbayan Rep Walden Bello.
During the committee hearings, Nueva Ecija Rep Rodolfo Antonino, who is pushing for ROR, said that the provision will ensure that the media would not abuse the FOI.
Both current versions of the FOI in the House and the Senate do not contain ROR provisions.
Not just for the media
Academics said the FOI bill is vital to their work as researchers.
"As scholars, we view access to data as an integral component in evidence-based research. Currently, the arbitrary roadblocks sent by public offices are barriers to a sincere examiniation of government operations," a group of academics from the University of the Philippines said in a statement.
It will also encourage ordinary citizens to be more involved in national affairs, National Union of Journalists in the Philippines secretary general Rowena Paraan said.
"We are not just supporting this to make our lives easier. We support this because we believe it will create an environment wherein ordinary citizens will be encouraged to join and actively participate in government," she said. - Rappler.com