Aquino and the framing of the FOI bill

Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III
The non-certification of a bill as urgent is not the equivalent of a rejection of a bill or even its downgrade

Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III

A news item in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on March 12, 2014 was titled “Aquino won’t certify FOI bill.” Factual but misleading, and I’ll explain why.

The opening sentence of the news story written by Christian V. Esguerra borders on editorializing. He wrote: “Despite his election campaign promise in 2010, President Aquino is not certifying as urgent the freedom of information (FOI) bill, although senators approved their own version of the measure on Monday.” The writer is suggesting that by not certifying the FOI bill as urgent, P-Noy is shying away from his commitment.

Taking the cue from this headline story, Amado Doronila, the Inquirer’s elder columnist, lambasted P-Noy in his analysis titled “Aquino sends FOI bill to death row.” 

Just because the bill is not certified urgent does not mean that P-Noy is no longer endorsing FOI. He promised FOI, but he never made a commitment in 2010 that he would certify the FOI as an urgent bill. One can support FOI without the use of the presidential  power to certify a bill urgent.  

And even if he promised the legislation of FOI, that does not prevent him from expressing his concerns over the bill. The perspective of an accidental presidential candidate is very different from that of one who has assumed the presidency.

But it is precisely by addressing P-Noy’s  fears and worries that a good law on FOI can be passed: A law that enables the people’s right to public information and at the same time protects national security and executive privilege.

To repeat, the non-certification of a bill as urgent is not the equivalent of a rejection of a bill or even its downgrade. 

Sadly, some do not understand, or even misinterpret, the constitutional provision regarding the President’s power to certify the immediacy of enacting the bill. Article VI (The Legislative Department), Section 26 of the Constitution is unambiguous: “No bill passed by either House shall become a law unless it has passed three readings on separate days, and printed copies thereof in its final form have been distributed to its Members three days before its passage, except when the President certifies to the necessity of its immediate enactment to meet a public calamity or emergency.”

Avoiding precedents

How then can the President justify a certification of the bill’s immediate enactment when the House Committee on Public Information has yet to finalize the consolidation of the different FOI bills? Only after the bill’s consolidation at the committee level can the House begin the plenary debate for the second reading vote. 

In the same vein, given that immediate enactment is premised on tackling a public calamity or emergency, a wise President rarely and sparingly employs the certification of immediate enactment.  

This is the context upon which we can understand the statements of Communications Secretary Sonny Coloma and Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte. Mr. Coloma said that P-Noy is “very circumspect in the use of presidential power.” Ms. Valte echoed this position:  “So far, the President has been judicious in exercising his certification power.”

Besides, we do not want to create a precedent wherein all sorts of advocates will depend on the President to certify with urgency their favorite important bills – and such bills are aplenty. That leads to a disequilibrium in legislation where everything becomes secondary to the President’s power.

The same Inquirer story, in fact, shows the executive’s support for FOI. The reporter quoted Communications Secretary Sonny Coloma: “That’s why we are one with the people in their desire to have this passed, and we hope that happens as soon as possible.”

What’s more, Malacañang has put forward its own FOI bill. The House bill filed by Representative Leni Robredo and Deputy Speaker Dina Abad mirrors the Malacañang version. The Senate version, championed by Senator Grace Poe, is also consistent with the Malacañang position.

In short, the recently passed Senate bill, the reference bill in the House Committee on Public Information and the bill sponsored by Mesdames Robredo and Abad are all  congruent with the Malacañang position. 

The framing of a story is very critical. A headline that says “Aquino won’t certify FOI bill” is not only biased but also deceptive. 

The story could have been framed thus, paraphrasing Secretary Coloma: “P-Noy hopes FOI happens as soon as possible.” In that case, Mr. Doronila’s argument quickly crumbles. –


Filomeno Sta. Ana III is coordinator of Action for Economic Reforms.






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