FOI Bill Well-Positioned for Passage, Citizens to Track House FOI Performance
Congress resumed session on 4 May 2015, with the proposed People’s Freedom of Information Act well-positioned for passage.
After months of deliberation by a Technical Working Group, the House Committee on Public Information approved (9 votes in favor, 3 against) on 24 November 2014 a consolidated version of 24 FOI bills. On 5 March 2015, the House Committee on Appropriations approved with minor amendments the appropriation provision of the bill.
This paves the way for the House plenary process on the FOI bill to begin. If approved on Second and Third Reading, the bill will be reconciled with the Senate version already approved on Third Reading and awaiting the House counterpart version as early as March 2014.
Timetable a matter of commitment and leadership
While well-positioned for passage, Congress will be working within a very compact timetable.
The May 4 session will only run for six weeks up to June 11, within which the passage of the BBL is regarded by Congress and the Executive as their top legislative priority. After the June 12 adjournment, the session will only resume again with President Aquino’s last SONA on July 27. FOI will then have to compete for time with other measures, foremost of which will be the 2016 budget. By the time of filing of candidacy in October 2015, legislators and other elected officials will also expectedly devote increasing attention to electoral matters.
These time limitations are apart from the actual political resistance that the FOI bill has historically faced.
Given our experience with FOI in past Congresses, we believe it is imperative that Congress is able to ratify a Bicameral Conference Committee Report before Congress adjourns session in December 2015, if we are to see the FOI Bill passed into law within the term of President Aquino and the 16th Congress.
Working with this timetable, we believe it is necessary that the bill be sponsored and the period of interpellation already started substantially within the 4 May to 11 June session. The start of the period of interpellation is crucial to allow any remaining issues to surface with sufficient time for the committee, authors and advocates to address them.
Overall, we believe that the following timetable for the passage of the People’s FOI Act is reasonable and doable:
· 4 May to 11 June 2015 Session — Sponsorship and substantial start of Period of Interpellation
· 27 July to September 2015 Session — Continuation of Period of Interpellation
· October Session/ November 2015 Session — Period of Amendments and Voting on Second and Third Reading
· December 2015 Session before December adjournment — Ratification of Bicameral Conference Report
Makabayan’s unreasonable benchmark
During the plenary process, we anticipate that the Makabayan bloc will again raise the objections it articulated in a Position Paper submitted during the committee approval of the consolidated bill (See attached). These objections centered on the exceptions provisions that Makabayan argues weaken the bill.
We adopt the answer to the Makabayan Position Paper by a number of authors of the FOI bill (See attached). We join their overall assessment that the TWG Report, adopted in full by the mother committee, “is a genuine and strong FOI bill that fully protects the people’s right to information while carefully balancing it with legitimate interests of individuals, the state and the bureaucracy”.
We add that Makabayan’s assessment that the committee report is “a greatly watered-down and weakened version” appears to be premised in part on their FOI bill, which in our humble view provides an unreasonable benchmark on exceptions. In its bill (House Bill No. 347), Makabayan advocates a near absolute right to information, and does not admit of reasonable exceptions based on legitimate competing interests and rights.
Section 5 (a) of its bill reads:
“No public officer, employee or government institution falling under Section 3 hereof shall withhold public scrutiny of sources of official information or matters of public concern and interest under Section 4 hereof on the grounds of national security, public order and safety or that the information is specifically exempted from disclosure by any other statute, common law and international law principles, and pertinent jurisprudence. PROVIDED, that the sole and only exception to rule on mandatory compliance is when it is established by substantial evidence in a court proceeding that the purpose of the examination is to abet or promote or commit criminal acts defined and/or enumerated in existing statutes or to engage in sheer and idle curiosity.”
To be sure the House Committee consolidated bill is not perfect when seen from differing perspectives. We appreciate the articulation of these perspectives, such as that of Makabayan. These will promote clarification of legislative intent in interpellation, or when merited, result in amendments to refine the bill further either in House plenary or at the bicameral conference. The articulation of these perspectives can also assist the public in making an informed position on the emerging FOI bill.