'80% chance' House will pass FOI bill – public info chair
MANILA, Philippines – What are the chances that the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill will be passed by 2016?
For the chairman of the House committee on public information, the possibility is high.
"Shall we say I am 80% sure that we can fashion out a Freedom of Information bill in the 16th Congress," Misamis Occidental 1st district Representative Jorge Almonte said in a taped interview shown at the town hall meeting and sign-up for the FOI bill held at the University of the Philippines-Bahay ng Alumni on Tuesday, July 1.
Almonte said among the factors that may derail the passage of the measure, which seeks to speed up and simplify procedures in access to public documents, are lawmakers' complaints on media coverage of the multimillion-peso pork barrel scam.
"Under the current situation, it will not be easy sailing. Many of the incumbent congressman, the way I see it, they are affected by the way the alleged scam has been being played in the press," Almonte said.
The sentiments of House members on the passage of the FOI bill vis-a-vis the pork barrel scam is opposite to that of the Senate, which passed the proposed law on 3rd and final reading as early as March.
Senator Grace Poe, chair of the Senate commitee on public information and mass media, said the Senate, in passing the FOI bill, was eager to change public perception of the institution battered by allegations that some of its members misused funds through the pork barrel scam.
"Ano bang nagtulak diyan? Ang nagtulak para mapabilis 'yan ay gusto nilang magkaroon ng magandang balita sa Senado in light of the PDAF scam (What prompted it? Senators wanted to some good news in light of the PDAF scam)," Poe said. "People at the Senate wanted to prove themselves, especially the young ones, that we can do something productive."
For the past two congresses, the FOI bill was left pending in the House, even as the Senate managed to pass it on both occasions on 3rd and final reading.
In the 15th Congress, House members failed to tackle the measure in plenary after it was passed at the committee level. In the 14th Congress, the measure only needed to be ratified in the House before it could be sent to the President for signing into law. But solons failed to vote on the measure for lack of quorum.
Current deliberations at the committee level indicate that the journey of the FOI bill would continue to be difficult. During the forum, Ang Nars party-list Representative Leah Paquiz noted how it takes an entire hearing just for the technical working group to deliberate on one section of the measure.
Makati Business Club chairman Ramon del Rosario said that in its last two years in office, it is now time for the Aquino administration – which has anchored its governance agenda on transparency and accountability – to institutionalize reforms.
"We see the wisdom of institutionalizing this culture of transparency and accountability so it can't be reversed; so future administrations will have no choice but to pursue this as well," Rosario said.
But how can ordinary citizens benefit from the proposed law?
Poe said Filipinos can use the FOI bill to push for equality, citing the United Kingdom as an example.
In Britain, the FOI law was used to prove the salary gap between male and female broadcasters, and push for gender equality in the workplace.
Workers also have the right to know where their taxes go, said Gerry Rivera, president of the Philippine Airlines Employees' Association.
"Mga P181 billion (US$4.148 billion) annually ang naiaambag natin sa kaban ng bayan. Ang tanong ko ngayon, saan napunta ito? Bakit hangang ngayon hindi ako makabili ng maayos-ayos na pagkain ng aking pamilya?" Rivera said.
(Workers contribute about P181 billion [US$4.148 billion] annually to public coffers. My question now is, where does this money go? Why can't I buy decent food for my family up to now?)
Representatives Emmeline Aglipay, Gus Tambunting and Walden Bello also attended the town hall meeting at UP-Diliman. Ifugao Representative Teddy Baguilat Jr joined via phonepatch from Ifugao.
Simultaneous sign-on activities were held in different areas, including various universities in Metro Manila, MRT and LRT stations, and centers in Rosario, Cavite and Cebu.
The Philippine Press Institute on Tuesday released a pooled editorial calling for the speedy passage of the measure. Read it below:
Pass the People’s FOI Bill now!
In exactly 24 months, the Aquino Administration that came to power on a "Social Contract with the Filipino People" will come to a close. Its trademark shibboleth: “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap.” Its path to governance: Daang Matuwid.
Today, we hear less and less of official statements peppered with the same prose now. And yet, as the Aquino administration enters its twilight years, the Filipino people's disaffection with unabated corruption in high places and jobless growth continues to rise.
In recent weeks, plunder and graft cases have been filed against some senators and congressmen mostly associated with the political opposition, for alleged misuse and abuse of pork barrel monies. A few other lawmakers allied with the Administration had also been implicated but the investigators have shown much less vigor and spunk in running after them.
What is wrong with this story? A big missing link – a Freedom Information Act that will affirm with absolute certitude that the long arm of the law will snare all the crooks, whether foes or friends of the Administration.
The cases are now unfolding on both legal and political fronts. It is most worrisome that because the wheels of justice grind exceedingly slow in the country, their prosecution will stretch beyond the life of the Aquino Administration and past the next national and local elections.
How the political interests of the accused and the accusers would collide or converge in May 2016, the paramount nonpartisan interest that must be favored is the Filipino people’s right to know, access information, and hold accountable in law and in the next elections those who amassed our hard-earned taxes for private gain.
At its birth, the Aquino Administration pledged to crack a simple equation – curb corruption to curb poverty. To most everyone it was clear that an FOI law could have served as fount and pivot of its reform agenda.
An FOI law will define clear procedures and reasonable limits on citizen requests for information and documents vested with public interest and in the custody of public officials and agencies.
And this is the essence of an FOI law – a rights-based permanent framework that is far more superior to the Administration’s voluntary disclosure of some public finance documents, or only those that it decides to post online.
About 100 countries across the world have enacted FOI laws. They have demonstrated how FOI serves as bedrock and enabler of most other rights of people to education, health, livelihood, property, security, and even life and happiness.
In the Philippines, a multitude of citizens and sectors – students, workers, informal settlers, professionals, academics, businessmen, church people, journalists, bloggers, donors, and civil society organizations – have declared their explicit and firm stand in favor of the passage of the FOI law.
The online and onsite petition on www.change.org/TayoNaParaSaFOI for President Aquino and Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr to finally act decisively on its passage has drawn about 10,000 signatories, and counting.
FOI is a legislation that is 27 years overdue. The 1987 Constitution guarantees the people's right to access information. It enshrines transparency as a state policy. It has obliged the members of Congress to pass an FOI law that will complement and effectively enforce both.
But 5 presidents and 9 Congresses hence, the FOI bill remains an elusive reform measure. It baffles most everyone why such an important legislation has languished for more years by an Administration that has sworn to take the path of "Daang Matuwid."
To be sure, the Aquino administration commands a plurality of votes in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. It has shown it could muster the numbers for reform bills certified by the President. The Sin Tax Law and the Responsible Parenthood Act are two examples. There is no question that if it wants to, it could do the same for FOI.
Under the steady leadership of Sen. Grace Poe, chair of the Committee on Public Information, the Senate passed its version of the bill on third and final reading in record time last March yet. Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, the chair of the Committee on Public Information, Rep. Jorge Almonte, has pledged to see the counterpart bill move past his committee at least before the year is over.
The next move, the final, decisive push for the FOI Act, is for the President and Speaker Belmonte to make.
Beyond partisan political interests, leaders and citizens must together take the path of Daang Matuwid, a road to progress basking in the sunshine of Freedom of Information, to curb corruption and poverty.
Pass the People's FOI bill now.