With no objection, Senate OKs FOI on 2nd reading

The Senate passes the POGI bill on second reading with no objection

'EASY PART.' Sen Gregorio Honasan II said the easy part is getting the Senate to pass the FOI bill, the "other part" is educating the public about its importance. File photo by Ayee Macaraig

MANILA, Philippines – The Freedom of Information (FOI) bill breezed through the Senate, which approved the measure on second reading.

In a voice vote, the Senate passed the FOI bill on second reading on Tuesday evening, December 11. The vote was done after the Senate ratified the sin tax reform bill.

Sponsor Sen Gregorio Honasan II said passing the bill on second reading was the easy part. The Senate version of the FOI bill is formally called the People’s Ownership of Government Information (POGI) Act of 2012.

The POGI bill aims to institute transparency and accountability by giving the public access to government records and information, and recognizing the people’s right to know.

Compared to the contentious sin tax bill, Honasan said the POGI bill was passed with no objection.

“I’m relieved. That was the easy part. The other part is communicating this to the people, the intended beneficiaries,” Honasan told Rappler in a phone interview.

The next step will be to approve the bill on 3rd and final reading, possibly by next week.

“Except for some constitutional issues that were validly raised by Sen Santiago, there seems to be some groundswell of support. I’m happy and we have to communicate this to our advocacy groups, to the bigger house that is our people. We should move this,” Honasan added.

Honasan was referring to the questions raised by Sen Miriam Defensor Santiago during the period of amendments.

Last week, Santiago expressed concern that the bill may limit the President’s privilege to keep matters confidential such as issues on foreign affairs, and violate the separation of powers.

Honasan said Santiago’s concerns can be addressed.

“Those were not really serious objections. She graciously converted the questions into concrete amendments, most of which we accepted.”

Honasan added that he “politely declined” Santiago’s request to change the title of the bill back to FOI.

“FOI seems to continue to be abstract in the eyes of the people. This does not apply to the media only. We want to concretize it by strategically emphasizing that people’s ownership should be underscored so to catch everybody’s attention, we use the acronym POGI,” Honasan said.

“There are comments that the acronym is presumptuous. If there are insinuations, I’m no longer competitive in that department,” the senator said in jest. In his heyday as a rebel colonel, Honasan was referred to as “pogi” (handsome) by his military peers.

Ball in House’s court

With the Senate’s approval, all eyes are on the House of Representatives, where the bill has met rough sailing. The House version is finally ready for plenary debates after the Committee on Public Information approved its report on the measure.

Compared to the House, the POGI bill had an easier time in the Senate. Honasan has repeatedly said that almost all senators are supportive of the bill.

In the House, so-called killer provisions like the right of reply, and procedural and logistical delays pushed back the approval of the measure. Committee Chairman Eastern Samar Rep Ben Evardone has been accused of “dribbling the bill.”

Honasan though said he will not comment on the House’s dynamics “out of inter-house courtesy.”

Okay lang iyan (It’s okay). There’s a sense of impatience on the part of advocacy groups. These are people who have kept vigil with this particular bill for several congresses.”

A question of priorities

Asked how the FOI bill will fare considering the many other bills Congress has been tackling, Honasan said it was a matter of priority. Other than the recently approved sin tax and budget bills, both houses of Congress are also tackling the controversial Reproductive Health (RH) bill. The President wants the RH bill voted on soon. 

“To me this is just a question of a sense of priorities, not only of both houses of Congress but the executive department. Because of so much democratic space we are enjoying, no administration, especially this one should be worried about the implications of the POGI bill,” Honasan said. 

President Benigno Aquino III has made it his campaign promise to push for the bill’s passage but advocates said his support has wavered. They call on him to certify the FOI bill urgent. 

“[This bill] will really make the present administration look good, put substance to daang matuwid (straight and narrow path), convergence, private-public partnership and give life to the principle of transparency, and motivate our people to be more interested in our country,” Honasan said.

The Palace has come out with its own version of the FOI bill and proponents in both the Senate and the House said they have adopted this in their bills. 

In the Senate, Sen Alan Peter Cayetano and Loren Legarda are co-sponsors of the POGI bill. They delivered their co-sponsorship speech last week. – Rappler.com