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P-Noy to make FOI law a reality in months

A cross section of the "impatient" crowd waiting for Freedom of Information Act to become a reality. The waiting will soon be over, Malacañang assures.
A cross section of the "impatient" crowd waiting for Freedom of Information Act to become a reality. The waiting will soon be over, Malacañang assures.

MANILA, Philippines (June 11, 2011) - Malacañang has given the assurance that the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill will become a law under the Aquino administration. And we are counting months, not years, before it becomes a reality.

Presidential Communications Group Secretary Herminio Coloma told the “No Holds Barred” media forum at the National Press Club in Intramuros, Manila, that it is reasonable to expect tha passage of the bill within the coming months.

At this time, the Palace is almost done with its version of the bill, then it shall move through the usual legislative process. Many provisions of the FOI bill in its present form are already included in existing laws so it requires some trimming, Coloma said.

“We are now in the final stages of completing the administration version (of the FOI bill) and once it is completed, this will be submitted to the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (Ledac),” said Coloma.

The next Ledac meeting will be held on July 12, although Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. is reportedly seeking a deferment. Malacañang reportedly is open to reset the meeting to another date.

Coloma said the overall atmosphere of accountability and transparency in the first year of the Aquino administration has been good, noting that President Aquino has not issued any order barring government officials from attending congressional inquiries, unlike before when former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo issued Executive Order 464 preventing officials from doing so.

If passed, the FOI bill would empower not only journalists but also citizens who want to have access to information on the government, especially government expenditures.

Malacañang said the FOI bill would be acceptable to media and the government, given the sensitivity of state secrets that pertain to national security.

“I think we’re making sure that it will be something acceptable to both the government and the media. We’ve taken also some inputs from the media and so it’s all there already,” said presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda in another forum.

He said the present administration will be “as transparent and as open as possible given the limitations of privacy with respect to national security matters and other matters as decided by the Supreme Court.”

“We just want to make sure that the rights of the individuals concerned in the government are also protected,” he explained, pointing out that FOI laws in the US and UK and other countries, including the Official Secrecy Act are being reviewed.

Lacierda said their own version of the FOI bill shall be flavored with the advocacies of the civil society.

Having observed that some FOI advocates are “impatient,” Lacierda gave assurance that the government is doing all it can to fulfill its “commitment” to provide a bill that would ensure transparency and accountability in government.

“As soon as we’re able to discuss it (FOI bill) with Rep. Erin Tañada, we will present it to Budget Secretary Florencio Abad because the President ordered him to oversee the whole process. So we’ll submit it to Secretary Abad and we’ll have a discussion,” Lacierda said.

Tañada is the principal author of House Bill No. 53, the resurrected version of the FOI bill that almost passed in the previous Congress. He filed the bill on the first day of session of the 15th Congress in June 30 last year, amid cheers of supporters who still had bitter aftertaste of the way the FOI bill was killed in the 14th Congress.

Congressmen failed to muster the quorum required to approve the bicameral conference committee version of the FOI bill last June 4, 2010, the last day of the regular session of the 14th Congress.

Many suspect that some lawmakers headed by then Speaker Prospero Nograles clandestinely worked on a no-quorum scenario when the FOI Bill was put up for final voting at the Lower House after the Senate ratified its Bicameral Committee Report. In the end the last all-important session lacked 7 warm bodies to constitute a quorom, although at least 9 lawmakers reported as absent would later complain to the media that the secretariat of the Lower House did not count them in during what many consider a half-hearted roll call.

FOI advocates saw the demise of the FOI bill coming in the hands of Nograles and company, although up to the last moment they kept their fingers crossed that the noble part of the congressmen would prevail and they would choose to "make history" rather than "being cast aside to its dustbin."

An enthusiastic and nervous crowd gathered at the Batasan Complex on June 4, 2010 to see which way the lawmakers would go.

House Majority Leader Arthur Defensor went through the formality of presenting the motion to ratify the Freedom of Information Act. But Camiguin representative Pedro Romualdo, whose other claim to prominence was his impassioned defense of Arroyo's $20,000 dinner at Le Cirque, promptly stood up and questioned the lack of quorom and proposed additional debate on the retroactivity provision of the proposed law, expressing his preparedness to be ‘condemned’ for blocking the passage of the proposed legislation as he questioned the lack of quorum in the chamber ‘as a matter of principle’.

Based on the House secretariat’s count, only 128 lawmakers attended the June 4 session. But at least an hour before the attendance was checked, CIBAC Partylist Representative Joel Villanueva said lawmakers at the plenary had already reached 137 - more than enough to muster a quorum of 135.

CIBAC Partylist Representative Joel Villanueva and Akbayan lawmaker Riza Hontiveros motioned to compel attendance to the session by arresting congressmen roaming  outside the session hall. Compostela Valley Congressman Manuel ‘Waykurat’ Zamora humorously offered to assist in arresting his colleagues. But Speaker Nograles brushed off the suggestions.

Moments later, Nograles banged the gavel adjourning the session and killing the FOI bill that incidentally he was a co-author of. Later, accused of double-speaks he texted to members of the media: "I did my best but my best wasn't good enough."

Malacañang expressed regret at the non-passage of the bill, claiming that the Palace was in full support of the bill and then President Arroyo was waiting to sign it to law.

Previous Philippine Congresses since 2000 have consistently withheld the enactment of the Freedom of Information law and the Senate ratification of a Bicameral Committee report in the 14th Congress was the highest level the FOI bill reached.

In the new Congress, Congressman Erin Tañada brought the bill back to life to "send a message" and he likes the FOI Act to be the very first legacy under the Aquino era. (From, Vox Bikol)