All Eyes on the Senate

Nepomuceno Malaluan, a lawyer with academic background in economics, is a trustee of Action for Economic Reforms. He is co-convener of the Access to Information Network (ATIN) and the Right to Know. Right Now! Campaign. – He may be reached at nepo@er.ph and at nepo_m@yahoo.com. This was published in the November 16, 2009 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4-S1/5.

Last 9 November, representatives of the Right to Know. Right Now! Campaign marched to the Senate to appeal the immediate passage of Senate Bill 3308, or the Freedom of Information Act. The bill needs to complete its periods of interpellation and amendments before it is approved on second and third readings. Only then can the bill go to the bicameral conference committee for reconciliation with House Bill 3732 that was approved by the Lower House more than a year ago. With an alarm clock mascot, the group sounded the alarm, as only 23 session days remained before Congress breaks for the elections. Should Congress fail to pass to the Freedom of Information Act by then, years of effort that went into the crafting of a progressive and responsive Freedom of Information Act will again go down the drain as in previous Congresses.

Presenting a collective statement of appeal signed by more than 70 organizations to Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri, the Senate leaders did not disappoint. The Senate President assured the campaign network that the measure has the Senate’s full support. The Majority Leader, for his part, read in plenary session the first paragraph of the appeal, and made on record the following commitment:

“I assure them, we assure them, that before the break on November 19 that hopefully we will be able to approve this on second reading, and when we get back on December 1, we approve this on third and final reading. We assure them.”

As sessions continue on November 16, 17 and 18, the campaign network that counts among its ranks public-interest groups, environmental protection advocates, independent media groups, print and broadcast journalists, farmers organizations and support groups, women’s organizations, private and public sector labor unions, migrant workers, businessmen, religious organizations, academic institutions, and student and youth organizations, anxiously looks forward to the fulfillment of the Senate’s promise. The network gives Senator Alan Peter Cayetano its full support as he makes the crucial push for the bill on these dates as Chairman of the Committee on Public Information and principal sponsor of Senate Bill 3308 under Committee Report 534. With Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago’s interpellation already concluded, only two more interpellations are scheduled: those of Senator Joker Arroyo and Senator Aquilino Pimentel, Jr. As for amendments, Senators Santiago and Francis Escudero are ready with their proposed amendments. Thus, there appears to be no reason why the Senate’s commitment to pass Senate Bill 3308 by 18 November may not be fulfilled.

It is not just advocates in the Philippines that are excited over the anticipated Senate action on the bill this week. Freedom of Information advocates around the world are also closely following the developments. As noted by Roby Alampay, Executive Director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance based in Bangkok, the FOIANet, the global listserv for the world’s leading national and international access to information experts is alive with discussions about HB 3732 and SB 3308 as a groundbreaking piece of legislation. One of them, Toby Mendel, Senior Legal Counsel of UK-based organization Article 19, has this to say:

“I have reviewed House Bill 3732 and Senate Bill 3308 and I can attest that they are progressive pieces of draft legislation that conform to key international standards regarding the right to information. In particular, they contain  broad and strong  guarantees of the right of access, put in place clear and fair rules regarding the processing of requests, have extensive proactive publication obligations, in particular regarding financial information, have clear and limited regime of exceptions,  provide for internal, administrative and legal appeals, and strong sanctions for those who obstruct the right of access.”

We cannot overemphasize the importance that a Freedom of Information Act will play in the maturation of Philippine society and politics. Freedom of information is a key component of democracy. It gives flesh to the Constitutional precepts that sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them, and that public officers and employees must at all times be accountable to the people. The right to information is also a necessary condition for the effective exercise of other rights by the people. The freedom of the press, of speech and expression, as well as the right to petition the government for redress of grievances can only be fully and responsibly exercised by an informed press and citizenry. The same is true for the right of the people and their organizations to effective and reasonable participation at all levels of social, political, and economic decision making.

Should the Senate fulfill its promise to pass Senate Bill 3308 on second reading by 18 November, and on third reading by 1 December, the passage of the Freedom of Information Act in the Philippines hopefully reaches an irreversible stage. When it finally happens, it will be a historic and lasting contribution of the 14th Congress to political reform in the country, to benefit our generation, and the generations to come.

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