‘Pork barrel scam shows need for FOI’

Ayee Macaraig

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24 groups under the Right to Know Right Now! Coalition file their version of the FOI bill in the Senate

THEIR INITIATIVE. The Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition files its own version of the Freedom of Information bill before the Senate, saying it will help avoid and expose controversies like the pork barrel scam. Photo by Rappler/Ayee Macaraig

MANILA, Philippines – What can government records tell us about how lawmakers use or abuse their pork barrel?

Advocates of the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill took their campaign to the Senate, citing the pork barrel scam as an added argument for their new push for the measure.

At least 24 people’s organizations under the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition filed their own version of the FOI bill at the Senate on Wednesday, July 17, hoping the decade-old bill will finally become law in the 16th Congress.

Lawyer Nepomuceno Malaluan, lead convenor of the coalition, said an FOI law would have helped expose and avoid controversies like the P10-billion pork barrel scam.

“For example in the stories, we cannot see what are the allegations from the whistleblower, what is officially coming from the COA (Commission on Audit), where are the records, what are the SAROs (special allotment release orders). If you go to the bottom of that, you need FOI. Otherwise, it’s a political exercise,” Malaluan told reporters.

Malaluan said an FOI law would address confusion arising from the news reports on the issue.

“The essence of the FOI bill is to get to know and to verify the truth to all these news that we get. I think it is to the interest of all concerned, whether those accusing and those being accused, for an FOI bill to be there. It’s hard to get to the bottom of this issue if we don’t have access to information.”

The coalition filed the House version of the measure on July 1, the first day of filing of bills.

The FOI bill aims to institutionalize transparency and accountability, and to recognize the constitutional right to know. It aims to provide a procedure for citizens to access government records and information.

The advocates filed the bill just days after the pork barrel scam hit the headlines. Five senators and 23 congressmen allegedly allowed a syndicate to access their pork barrel to fund ghost projects of bogus NGOs in exchange for hefty kickbacks. The senators denied knowledge of the scheme. 

The coalition filed the bill through an indirect initiative, a mechanism under the Initiative and Referendum Law that allows people’s organizations to directly propose a bill. Bills filed through this initiative are supposed to be given priority in the committee level. 

UNANIMOUS SUPPORT. Lawyer Nepomuceno Malaluan (center) says the FOI bill has always enjoyed unanimous support in the Senate, unlike in the House of Representatives. He and Mae Paner of the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition file their Senate version of the measure. Photo by Rappler/Ayee Macaraig

Door-to-door approach

Besides filing the bill, the advocates went door to door to give each senator a copy of the bill.

Malaluan said this is part of the group’s strategy of reaching each lawmaker to know their stand on the issue after several failed attempts to get the bill passed in previous Congresses. In the past, the group relied on its champions in Congress to push for the bill. 

Malaluan acknowledged that it is in the House, not the Senate, where the problem lies.

“We thank the Senate because it has consistently shown multi-party support. The bicam report [in the 14th Congress] was ratified in the Senate. It was the House that killed it on the last day of Congress. The same goes for the 15th Congress where the committee of Sen Greg Honasan passed this up to 3rd reading and it is the House where it again fared much worse.”

This early, Honasan, the chairman of the Committee on Public Information in the 15th Congress, said he is willing to push for the group’s FOI bill.

“I am willing to author or co-author it because it is the chairman of the Committee on Public Information and Mass Media who will sponsor it after reconciling all versions. I hope the need to certify it as urgent is now obvious,” Honasan told Rappler in a text message.

Sen Grace Poe, who has expressed interest in the post, earlier said she also supports the initiative and is open to studying various versions and views about the FOI bill.

In the 16th Congress, Senators Teofisto Guingona III, Alan Peter Cayetano, and JV Ejercito already filed and re-filed different versions of the FOI bill.

Senators Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Antonio Trillanes IV, and Nancy Binay also expressed support for the measure.

Malaluan said the battle will really be waged in the House after the group encountered problems under the leadership of Public Information Committee Chairman Rep Ben Evardone in the 15th Congress.

“The chairmanship of the committee in the House will be very crucial and we support the move of some of our FOI champions that nominated Rep Emmeline Aglipay who has worked with us in the past and she expressed strong interest,” Malaluan said.

‘With or without Aquino support’ 

Malaluan said key features of the bill include the coverage and exceptions for FOI requests, the procedure for accessing information, and sanctions for violating the right to information.

Under the bill, administrative and criminal sanctions will be imposed on government officials who fail to respond to requests. These include suspension from 6 months to one year on first offense, and dismissal on second offense.

Malaluan said the coalition ensured that the exceptions cannot be used to cover up crime, wrongdoing, and graft and corruption. The following are the exceptions to FOI requests:

  • classified documents relating to national security or internal and/or external defense of the State, as well as foreign affairs, when it will unduly weaken the negotiating position of the government or jeopardize our diplomatic relations, provided that a period to declassify is enforced;
  • minutes or records of advice given or of opinions expressed during decision-making or policy formulations invoked by the President to be part of presidential communications privilege, provided that there is an order for a period to declassify;
  • those relating to internal and external defense and law enforcement when the information:
    • compromises legitimate military or law enforcement operation
    • compromises or interferes with prevention, detection of suppression of criminal activity, or effective implementation of immigration controls and border security
    • discloses the identity of a confidential source
    • discloses techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations
    • endangers the life or physical safety of any individual
    • impairs the impartiality of verdicts, or otherwise obstructs the administration of justice
    • relates to trade, industrial, financial, or commercial secrets of a natural of juridical person other than the requesting party
    • comprises privileged communications in legal proceedings by law
    • would render an intended government agency actions ineffective unless the anticipated danger has ceased.

The measure also excludes the right-of-reply, with Malaluan calling it a killer provision. This provision requires news organizations to publish the side of a public official who might be implicated through information accessed through the bill. 

Malaluan acknowledged that the bill faces strong opposition from politicians whose personal interests run contrary to the measure.

Is the group expecting President Benigno Aquino III to mention the bill in his State of the Nation Address next week?

Malaluan said, “Your guess is as good as mine.”

Aquino has drawn flak for failing to make good on his campaign promise to push for the bill. He also did not grant advocates’ request to certify it urgent.

“From day one, we asked for the President’s decisive support as has been shown in other contentious bills. Siguro nakukulitan na kami sa mga sarili namin.” (We’re at the point where we already find ourselves pesky.) 

“Our fight will continue. We’ve lost so many times already. We’re used to it.”

Read the People’s FOI bill here:



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