Groups launch signature campaign for FOI law

MANILA, Philippines – Dissatisfied with the pace of discussions on the Freedom of Information (FOI), advocates on Wednesday, May 14, launched an online signature campaign for the speedy approval of the measure that has been pending in Congress for over two decades. 

FOI advocates – led by the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition – are collating signatures months ahead of President Benigno Aquino III's State of the Nation Address (SONA) in July. The signatures will be submitted to the President a week before the SONA. 

Advocates want Aquino and Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr to once and for all include the FOI, which seeks to install fast procedures in accessing documents of high public interest, in their priority bills. 

The bill is meant to compel government to make data, transactions and other documents available to the public, ranging from status of the country's debt, to asset statements of public officials to big-ticket government contracts, among others. The presence of such a law in a country is used as an international benchmark for government transparency and accountability. 

The petition said: "Sa apat na taon ng inyong pamunuan ay naabot na ang mataas na antas ng pagkakasundo sa mahahalagang probisyon ng FOI. Sa aming pagkakaalam, nasagot na ng mga pangunahing bersyon sa House, gayundin ng bersyong naipasa ng Senado, ang mga isyu ng Pangulo gaya ng proteksyon sa national security at executive privilege, sa paraang hindi naiko-kompromisa ang karapatan ng mamayan sa impormasyon." 

(In the 4 years of your term, we have reached the highest level of compromise in the most important provisions of FOI. As far as we know, the President's concerns regarding national security and executive privilege have been answered by the initial version of the House and the version passed by the Senate in a manner that does not compromise the right of citizens to information.)

Malacañang earlier said the Aquino administration is committed to pass the FOI bill – in 2015. The commitment was indicated in an action plan submitted to the Open Government Partnership, the Inquirer reported. (READ: Promise of new paradigm, partnership)

While the Senate has approved the measure on 3rd and final reading, the bill remains stuck at the committee level in the House of Representatives. Malacañang, meanwhile, wants Congress to prioritize the Bangsamoro Basic law, among other measures, before the FOI.

Belmonte has committed to pass the bill before 2016, but he also put his charter change resolution above the FOI bill in his priority list. 

'Passing FOI will help resurrect Congress' image'

Supporters of the measure in and out of Congress believe the time is ripe for the enactment of the FOI bill into law – especially in the aftermath of  the biggest corruption scandal to hit the country in recent years, the pork barrel scam.

"We must act with deliberate speed to pass the FOI bill. Now more than ever Congress is under a lot of criticism. If we want to resurrect its image, we should all pull our resources towards its end," said Quezon City Representative Winston Castelo. 

On Monday, May 12, the Techinical Working Group on the FOI bill once again failed to consolidate the 19 versions of the measure after authors complained that the reference bill provided by the committee secretariat was created without the authors being consulted.

The authors earlier agreed to use the 15th Congress version of the measure, which includes Malacañang-proposed provisions, as a reference. 

Despite the delay, Dinagat Islands Representative Kaka Bag-ao said there were positive indications. "Dati, nagtatalo-talo mga kongresista sa posisyon. Ngayon, magkakampi na lahat. Ang inaaway na namin 'yung committee," Bag-ao said. 

(Before, lawmakers were arguing about our positions. Now, we are all united. What we are fighting now is the committee.)

Lawmakers in the past congresses had moved to include a right of reply provision that would require media outfits to provide space for the response of individuals implicated in reports produced through the proposed FOI law. Advocates have branded this as a "killer" provision. 

Philippine Daily Inquirer publisher Raul Pangalangan said the media is aware it must instill "internal self-discipline" but the priority now is to first pass the FOI law.

The FOI bill came close to becoming a law in the 14th Congress but the House of Representatives failed to ratify the measure due to the lack of a quorum. In the 15th Congress, the measure only hurdled the committee level in the House. -