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Special Report: FOI bill must be passed—groups

MANILA, August 27, 2011—The Burgos Media Center (BMC) assailed the Aquino administration for alleged dilly-dallying of the passage of the Freedom of Information bill, with 13 versions now pending in the 15th Congress.

BMC Spokesperson Marc Joseph Alejo in an interview said that President Benigno C. Aquino III must endorse the bill, in which he was one of the “stalwarts” in pushing for the bill during the rule of former president and now Pampanga (2nd District) Rep. Ma. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who was then—until now—is hounded with corruption controversies.

“The FOI is the reinforcement of the Article 3, Section 7 [of the 1987 Constitution) which is the freedom to information. I think that it is the government’s duty to enforce that,” Alejo told CBCPNews in an interview.

The bill, which has been pending now in the Congress, would be the government’s service to the “masa” (masses), Alejo said.

“What are reasons why this FOI bill should be passed into law? First, it would foster transparency in the government transactions, check and balance. We, in the media, and even the ordinary citizens, should freely exercise our or their right to be informed about the transactions and treaties that the government is entering into. Media, as the champions of the people, we should be serving the interest of the masses. Second is for public service. With the FOI law in action, the processing of the release of pertinent public documents would be quick. I think these two things are enough for our lawmakers to hasten the passage of the bill,” he said.

For Alejo, the non-ratification of the bill is a total disservice to the people for it denies them their right to know and giving them more doubt about the “cleanliness” of government transactions.

“Wala ka na ngang transparency, dini-deprive mo pa ‘yong tao ng kung ano ‘yong para sa kanila,” the BMC spokesperson said.

P-Noy’s non-prioritization of the bill: ‘funny thing’

“The funny thing is when Arroyo was in power, [President] Aquino was one of the strongest supporters of this bill. He always says that “We must ratify this [bill] in order to expose all the wrongdoings of the Arroyo administration. But the question now is why the Aquino administration seems to be hesitant or silent about the passage of the FOI bill? In fact, in his recently concluded State of the Nation Address last July 25, the President didn’t even mention the bill as one of his legislative agendas? This could mean that the bill is not a priority by this administration… BMC and I, personally, think that P-Noy’s “tuwid na daan” is a kind of a joke. Okay, let’s talk about this, intellectually: If his tuwid na daan is really true, where is the evidence?” he said.

Although the press freedom advocate says that he is giving the Aquino administration the “benefit of the doubt”, the non-inclusion of the bill in the list of the priority legislations for the 15th Congress by Malacañang, gives him some hesitation about the sincerity of the current regime in curbing corruption in the bureaucracy.

Other groups such as the National Press Club (NPC), the College Editors’ Guild of the Philippines-National Capital Region (CEGP-NCR), the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan-National Capital Region (Bayan-NCR), and the Alyansa ng Filipinong Mamamahayag (Afima) had been pressing for the passage of the bill.

The groups were dismayed since the FOI bill has not been certified as "urgent" by Malacañang as evidenced by the non-inclusion of the bill of Malacañang’s legislative agenda.

Malacañang-version of the FOI bill: is it trustworthy?

While there is no hint that the Aquino administration would prioritize the bill in any sessions of the Congress, Malacañang had earlier announced that they are sending their “own” version of the bill in Congress.

In May 4, 2011, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) aired its reservation about the Malacañang-drafted FOI bill, which the Presidential Spokesperson Atty. Edwin Lacierda said, had been “drafted with proper consultation among media groups.”

“The administration is proposing substantial changes to the bill proposed by the R2KRN coalition. The administration proposal includes, without a public interest override, matters of executive privilege in the list of information exempted from the bill. Additionally, the quasi-judicial body tasked to ensure the implementation of the FOI law will be under the Office of the President. As part of the government and with its commissioners appointed by the President, the purported autonomy of the Commission would be suspect at best and fictional at worst. Any public officer’s refusal to provide the requested information could be legitimized by the Commission on the basis of the broad grounds for the denial of information contained in the government proposals,” says CMFR on their website.

The media watchdog also said that the national security exemption “is similarly problematic” as it is not clearly defined in the bill and the CMFR fears that it could be used as a “a convenient cover for any refusal to provide information on government matters.”

Furthermore, the CMFR also criticized another provision of the Malacañang-sponsored FOI bill with regards to sanctions of government officials that will violate the bill. The CMFR revealed that Malacañang had proposed an “administrative sanction” only for public officials who will violate the FOI law.

“The absence of more meaningful sanctions such as personal and/or institutional fines against violators could make the proposed law virtually toothless,” stated the CMFR. The CMFR also reminded the government about the media’s role in providing rightful information to the people.

“[We] would also like to emphasize that the press, an institution specifically charged with providing information vital to public interest, would be hobbled by the administration proposals, particularly those on executive privilege and national security, which in the past have been used to conceal information on government contracts, of which the secrecy surrounding the canceled NBN-ZTE project was an example,” the CMFR added. (Noel Barcelona)