Frustrating road to an FOI law

AFTER ALMOST A YEAR in the technical working group (TWG) of the House committee on public information, a consolidated version of the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill was approved speedily and without objection last Sept. 2. A far cry from the paragraph-by-paragraph deliberation in previous sessions, the TWG meeting that Tuesday approved all remaining provisions, from Section 7f through Section 33, as well as the Title and Short Title of the measure. This was thanks to the steadfast leadership of the committee chairman, Misamis Occidental Representative Jorge Almonte, and the perseverance of the authors and other advocates who sought to reconcile provisions and forge consensus.

Although it is tempting to say that the long-awaited passage of the bill is now in sight, it would be best to put things in perspective by recalling what happened prior to this success.

The fact is, the consolidation of the bill at the TWG slowed down because of questions and objections at every turn. For example, one TWG session opened up with Section 7c, where provisions for the exceptions to FOI specifically relating to the military were stated. A good part of the session was spent reorienting everyone about where they left off — which was ACT Partylist Rep. Antonio L. Tinio’s amendment to the provision:

“a. The information requested pertains to internal and/or external defense, law enforcement, and border control, when the disclosure thereof would: unduly compromise or interfere with any legitimate military or law enforcement operation.”

He wanted it changed to “ongoing legitimate military or law enforcement operation.” This should have been easily resolved, given that representatives from the Department of National Defense (DND) were already present in the TWG to give their position. But unfortunately the congressmen still debated on whether they should defer their decision in the absence of Rep. Tinio because he arrived late for the meeting.

Soon after, the DND gave their position with regard to this provision. However, Kabataan Partylist Rep. Terry Ridon suddenly asked whether the DND representative had any written authority to give and read the DND’s statement — something that ABAKADA Partylist Rep. Jonathan de la Cruz pressed on. This was of course ridiculous, an official representing DND does not need a “written authority’” to simply read the agency’s statement.

Hours were wasted, and the deliberation on Section 7c-i stalled until Rep. Leni Robredo called for the committee to put the decision to a vote and finally settle the matter. A few more minutes were spent to figure out the voting members of the committee before they finally declined the amendment and kept the section as is.

So one may ask: Who is slowing down the movement of FOI? Who creates the stumbling blocks?

The fact of the matter is, even with the consolidation of the bill, the road to its passage is long and tortuous. More obstacles, more delaying tactics lie ahead.

The FOI bill was almost passed in the 14th Congress, needing only ratification by the House of Representatives of the bicameral conference report. What is even more heartbreaking is the fact that the bill had over 180 co-sponsors at the time.

Let us also not forget that this bill was driven to the ground in the 15th Congress when the committee failed to have a report approved in time.

The passage of this bill has been derailed long enough. We cannot overemphasize how important it is to have an empowering mechanism that we can use to effectively monitor how our own government exercises its power and authority.

Having an FOI law will facilitate greater awareness of government decisions, policies, plans and accomplishments.

At this point, nothing is more essential than building on the momentum created by the consolidation of the bill at the TWG.

The FOI bill still has a long way to go, and we must continue to be vigilant and guard against the forces that impede its passage.

But we have confidence in Rep. Almonte’s leadership, as well as the authors of the bill led by Deputy Speaker Dina Abad and Rep. Leni Robredo. Our government champions, together with the broad support from civil society, will be able to clear the stumbling blocks that lie ahead.

Karla Michelle Yu finished her bachelor’s degree in Political Science from De La Salle University Manila and is also a graduate of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung’s Academy of Political Management.

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The article was first posted on BusinessWorld on October 5, 2014.
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