FOI bill for final approval at Senate

MANILA, Philippines – Half a year since it was sponsored in the Senate by Senator Grace Poe, the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill will now undergo its third and final reading at the Senate plenary session Monday, March 10.

In a dzBB interview Sunday, March 9, Poe thanked her fellow senators for their inputs in the deliberations. Poe heads the Senate committee on public information.

"Malaking hakbang po ito para sa atin. Ito pong bagong FOI natin ay talagang pinagsikapan naman ng lahat ng senador na ipasa sa lalong madaling panahon ngayon... At masasabi ko naman sa ating mga kababayan na kahit na yung mga rebisyon o yung mga inaayos ng mga ibang senador doon na probisyon ay mas pinaganda pa nga at hindi naman ito ginawang mas mahirap na panukala," she said.

(This is a huge step for us. This new FOI [bill] was a collective effort of all senators to pass it at the soonest time possible... And I can say to our countrymen that even the revisions or provisions that were debated upon by senators all the more enhanced the bill.)

In her speech sponsoring the bill in September 2013, Poe said the passage of the bill is long overdue and is the answer to the corruption reeling in government.

"Many people believe that the only way to prevent corruption is by making public documents and transactions open to the public," she said. 

The FOI bill is among the priorities of the Senate for 2014, despite the President's refusal to certify the bill as urgent. The House of Representatives, on the other hand, is keen on passing the bill by 2016.

The bill seeks to operationalize the people's right to know, by granting them speedy access to government documents of high public interest.

Exceptions under Senate version 

Poe said the bill in its present form will also not cover Cabinet discussions, matters of national security, diplomatic affairs, and ongoing police investigations. 

One of the initial qualms of the administration about the bill is the provision that grants the public access to transcripts of Cabinet meetings.

Poe clarified that, even if the bill passes, discussions at the Cabinet level still cannot be accessed by the public right away.

Poe said executive privilege – the presidential right to non-disclosure of internal deliberations within the executive department – can still be invoked by the President and his Cabinet secretaries.

While Cabinet discussions and other select state matters remain confidential, Poe said the confidentiality is subject to limits and must not be abused.

"Meron din po tayong probisyon diyan. Syempre, yung condition ay nagsasabi na ang mga exception ng FOI ay hindi pwedeng gamitin para pagtakpan ang kalokohan sa gobyerno," she explained. 

(We have a provision on that. Of course, the condition states that the exceptions under the FOI [bill] cannot be used to cover up government anomalies.)

Poe also gave assurances that the result of these privileged discussions will be made public once finalized. "Kahit na pwedeng pinaguusapan, usap-usap palang iyan eh. Pero pag pag iyan ay naging mga dokumento na at nasulat na, hindi naman nila pwedeng sabihin na confidential iyan... kung kaya’t hindi pa naman iyan maikukubli sa atin at makikita parin natin iyan," she explained. (Even if a matter is being discussed [at the Cabinet level], those are just discussions. But if those [discussions] become documents or are now in writing, they cannot say that's confidential... that's why those cannot be concealed and the public will still know.)

Revisions

Clamor for the passage of the FOI bill heightened following a corruption scandal that linked lawmakers to an illegal diversion of their Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) to fake non-governmental organizations. (READ: Pork Tales: A story of corruption)

Poe cited two other female senators – Senators Miriam Santiago and Pia Cayetano –for the notable revisions in the FOI bill.

As it seeks to enhance government transparency, the FOI bill contains a provision requiring all government employees to submit their Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN).

Poe said the original version of the bill only included in this provision employees up to a certain pay grade. Poe said the provision has been revised to include officials in the barangay level, thanking Santiago for the revision.

"...may mga heads of agencies katulad ng mga barangay captain na wala naman pay grade yan dahil wala naman silang sweldo yung iba... ito iyong structure. So ito pong mga heads of agencies isinama na po natin sila doon," she said.

(...there are heads of agencies like the barangay captain who doesn't have a pay grade because some of them do not have salaries... that's the structure. We included these heads of agencies there [in the FOI provision].)

Senator Cayetano, Poe said, also wanted a clearer definition of what "matters of national security" meant. 

"Pina-specify niya ang definition ng (She wanted to specify the definition of) national security which may include economic security, food security," Poe said.

Salient provisions

Poe added that the bill sought to balance public interest with the privacy rights of government officials.

She said only officials who are implicated in anomalies or have standing cases in court related to these anomalies can be subject to investigation and be mandated to disclose their income tax return (ITR).

"So kapag wala namang duda sa iyong paninilbihan o kaya hindi ka naman nagnakaw ng kahit ano, hindi naman nila pwedeng tignan basta-basta ang ITR mo," she said. (So if there are no doubts about your service or you didn't plunder government money, the public cannot just access your ITR right away.)

She added that details not related to the discharge of an official's government function – for example, the whereabouts of one's family members, which school one's children go to, among others  – cannot be accessed by the public.

Poe said that the FOI bill, once signed into law, can be realistically implemented. – Buena Bernal/Rappler.com