Optimistic, but Guarded on FOI

On March 12, as the House of Representative’s Committee on Public Information resumes hearings on the Freedom of Information bill, the Action for Economic Reforms joined our colleagues in the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition in expressing optimism for a significant advance of the FOI bill in Congress.

Still, we also called for vigilance against any ploy to weaken the bill or to further delay its passage. We have not forgotten our tragic experience in the 14th Congress, when the House’s leadership killed the bill at the final stage by refusing to ratify the bicameral committee report.

Now, however, that President Aquino has given his endorsement, we see a game-changing opportunity in the struggle for a genuine FOI law.

There are 15 FOI bills filed and referred to the House Committee on Public Information chaired by Rep. Ben Evardone, and 12 FOI bills filed and referred to the Senate Committee on Public Information chaired by Senator Honasan. At the House, we support the proposed substitute bill submitted by Representative Erin Tañada to the committee in his capacity as Technical Working Group chairman.

This substitute bill, if passed, will translate into substantial gains to all citizens.

  • ·First, it will impose a uniform and speedy procedure for people’s access to information.
  • ·Second, it frees the broadest amount of non-sensitive information to easy and effective access for the everyday needs of citizens in availing of government services.
  • ·Third, the bill lays down clear limits on exceptions. In addition to defining the limits of exceptions, the bill reaffirms existing and adds new safeguards against abuse of exceptions.
  • ·Fourth, it identifies a list of documents of high public interest that are required to be disclosed without need of request, including SALNs that have otherwise been very difficult to access.
  • ·Fifth, it introduces basic standards on government’s record keeping and introduces various mechanisms to facilitate easy access of information.
  • ·Sixth, it introduces a number of better remedies to denial of access and violation of our right to information, including the imposition of substantial administrative and criminal liability.

To be sure, there will be continuing challenges that will have to be confronted if the bill in its present form is passed— such as the potential misuse of the national security exception. But on the whole, the bill represents a significant, progressive advance of our right to know, and fares very well when ranged against the close to 90 FOI laws around the world.

The window of opportunity for passing the FOI law is closing fast. The Second Regular Session of the House of Representatives is already scheduled to end on June 7.

We urge the House Public Information Committee to approve the bill at the soonest possible time, and resist any attempt to delay, or insert killer provisions, into the bill— such as through monkey-wrench amendments like the right of reply, or the further expansion of exceptions.

We will continue to push on, but more than ever, we appeal for the support of the Filipino public as we press for the speedy and full realization of this constitutional right. The Freedom of Information Act, if legislated, will not only be an anti-corruption measure; it will become a vital institutional mechanism that will secure the empowerment of the citizenry, the more effective delivery of government services, and undoubtedly, better governance.

 

Action for Economic Reforms

13 March 2012

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