What's in a name? FOI or ATI?
MANILA, Philippines – Since the time a bill on public access to government data was filed in the 8th Congress, the measure has always been known as the "Freedom of Information" bill. Its Senate counterpart carries the same name.
Now, the chairman of the public information committee in the House of Representatives wants to call the FOI bill "Access to Information" or "ATI" bill instead.
"Because that is the wording of the Constitution - access to public information," Misamis Occidental Rep Jorge Almonte said during the first meeting of the public information committee on Wednesday, October 23.
Article III, Section 7 of the Constitution states:
"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 limitations as may be provided by law.”
Some committee members believe changing the name of the FOI bill was unnecessary.
The FOI bill aims to institutionalize the right to know and policy of public disclosure enshrined in the Constitution by providing a system for ordinary citizens to access government documents and information.
When he was a senator, President Benigno Aquino III voted for the bill. As a presidential candidate, he vowed to push for it. But the bill has languished in Congress under his administration.
Advocates expect a smooth and swift passage of the FOI bill in the Senate, which approved the measure in past Congresses. It is in the House of Representatives where the group expects challenges, especially in relation to the right-of-reply provision.
In the 15th Congress, the FOI bill failed to enter the period of amendments on the floor after delays to pass it in the committee level. The measure came close to becoming a law in the 14th Congress. But the House of Representatives failed to ratify the measure due to lack of quorum.
What's in a name?
ACT Teachers Rep Antonio Tinio said the phrase "Freedom of Information" has a long history not just in Philippine public discourse but also in legal tradition and jurisprudence.
"Just for the purposes of continuity, I would personally prefer we maintain that because that's what the public knows," Tinio said. "The phrase emphasizes freedom or the right place of FOI on the same level as freedom of expression."
Ifugao Rep Teddy Brawner Baguilat Jr, an FOI advocate, said the chairpersons of committees do have the freedom to change the name of bills for as long as the "essence" of the bill would not change.
Besides, Baguilat said the proposed bills will still go through the consideration of the technical working group (TWG), which will be in charge of merging and, in the process, naming the consolidated version of the measure.
Advocates of the measure, led by the Right to Know Right Now! Coalition, a consortium of more than 150 networks from various sectors, have waged a media campaign online and offline anchored on the name "FOI bill" – for instance, using the slogan "People's FOI Now" to push for its passage.
TWG convened but…
On Wednesday, committee members agreed to create a TWG that would consolidate all versions of the bill.
But no specific members were appointed and no date for the meetings were set.
The House adjourned session Tuesday, October 22. They will resume session on November 18. A TWG can meet even during the break.
Although Almonte made assurances that all FOI bill authors will be included in the TWG, he did not make any commitment to set TWG meetings during the break.
"There are other matters to be attended to [during the break]," Almonte said.
DIWA Rep Emmeline Aglipay, one of the authors of the FOI bill, said it would have been a "sign of good faith" for Almonte to have given at least a date for a TWG meeting.
"He could have said we could meet before the break or before November 26 [the next committee hearing], but his reply was that there are other bills to be considered," Aglipay said. "It was really disappointing to say the least." - Rappler.com