FOI: Battle becomes local
MANILA, Philippines - Everything about it screams death - someone lying on a stretcher, a body attached to a dextrose.
Never mind that that "someone" is simply a piece of paper with a man drawn on it. The words "FOI, Ipasa, Kung Hindi Ngayon Kailan Pa (FOI should be passed, if not now, when?) written on it sends the message loud and clear - the Freedom of Information Bill or House Bill 6766, An Act Strengthening the Right of Citizens to Information, is as good as dead in the 15th Congress.
It's been a big heartbreak for FOI advocates. In 2012, then senator and presidential candidate Benigno Aquino III promised that he will push for the passage of the FOI bill.
The FOI bill penalizes the refusal to provide documents on public matters and standardizes the procedures in the storage and provision of said data and documents. It fits right into Aquino's platform of a less corrupt and more transparent government.
Almost 3 years into his term, however, the bill's chances of getting passed have hardly improved.
Aquino has not made it a priority bill, and with only 5 days left before the House adjourns, FOI advocates admit that the chances of having the FOI bill passed are again dim.
"It's a foregone conclusion," Nepomuceno Malaluan from the Action for Economic Reforms and one of the co-converors of the Right to Know! Right Now! coalition said.
The Right to Know! Right Now! Coalition is composed of 160 different groups from the media, labor and women sectors, all of which are pushing for the passage of the FOI bill.
It's been an arduous 14 years for FOI advocates, as they saw the FOI bill shoved into the backburner, then passed and finally submitted to the plenary only to be ignored once again.
Some groups within the coalition are toying with the idea of bringing the battle outside Congress.
Access to information can be strengthened on the ground and at the grassroots level.
Rowena Paraan of the National Union Journalists of the Philippines said they are thinking of partnering with either local government units or people's organizations in different provinces and towns to educate people on their right to access information.
"It's teaching them how to assert their right," she said.
She said people should be able to request for data from local officials and get these even in the absence of an FOI law. Access to information, after all, is enshrined in the 1987 Constitution.
Sec. 7 of the Bill of Rights states that, "The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized. Access to official records, and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.”
While an FOI law may help define what public information is and help expedite the process, people should be able to get information on official actions of their government starting at the local level, she said.
Malaluan said while they have yet to devise a new lobbying strategy for the passage of the FOI bill in the next Congress, one of the steps they plan to explore is to build the capacity of people in accessing information at the local level.
"The battle is beyond the legislative process," he said.
When he was mayor of Naga, the late Interior and Local Government secretary Jesse Robredo started the practice of mandating the full disclosure of financial transactions.
Idea lives on
What the FOI advocates are planning is to include not just information on budget processes but on other concerns that affect different sectors.
Malou Mangahas of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism said that Filipinos are now more aware of why they need to demand information from public officials.
She pointed to the different groups that participated in a march to Mendiola on Monday, January 28 to ask Malacañang to push for the approval of the FOI bill.
Among those who joined the march were unionists from the Alliance of Progressive Labor (APL) and the Philippines Airlines Employees Association, as well as victims of a bankrupt insurance company, such as those belonging to the Prudential Life Inc. Warriors.
"It's a ragtag team we have here," Mangahas said in jest.
Mangahas said this only shows that the FOI is not something that only the news media needs.
Mangahas said it is not the media that needs the FOI law the most because reporters have access to public records and can find ways to get the information they want from sources and insiders.
Filipinos who need the FOI are the ordinary taxpayers or overseas Filipino workers who want to know how government funds are being used, as what APL said. It is also the NGOs and other groups that would like to know where millions in pork barrel are being spent, as what Sixto Donato Macasaet of Code-NGO said.
The Prudential Life Inc. Warriors, for one, wants to know what the Insurance Commission is doing with their case, after Prudential Life went bankrupt, putting at risk the investments of about 300,000 insurance holders.
Mangahas said that since more people are now aware of the value of access to information, the motivation for the push for the FOI law continues even if the bill is killed.
"You cannot kill the idea," she said.
Moment of truth
Even with this new approach, the FOI advocates will still carry on with their campaign to have the law passed.
Malaluan, Mangahas and others asked Undersecretary Manolo Quezon III in Malacañang to relay their one last appeal to President Aquino -- for him to certify the bill urgent.
The House indeed sponsored the bill on the floor on Monday, but the session adjourned after that.
The "dribbling" in the House frustrates the advocates. They say this shows the vacillation of Aquino over the FOI bill.
Mangahas said the remaining 5 days will be a "moment of truth" for Aquino. What is his real stand on the FOI bill? Will he use his clout as a Liberal Party chairman and as chief executive to mobilize his allies in the House and pass the bill?
He had previously used this to have two other controversial bills passed into law: the sin tax and reproductive health measures.
FOI advocates said that at least under the time of then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, they knew that they could not really count on her support for the bill, given allegations of her involvement in corruption.
But Aquino has repeatedly said he's no Arroyo.
Yet it seems they both fear one thing: an FOI law. - Rappler.com