14 October 2010

Chairman, Committee on Public Information and Mass Media
Philippine Senate

Subject: Position on the Freedom of Information bills

Dear Sen. Honasan:

We are members of the Right to Know. Right Now! Coalition, a campaign network of more than 150 organizations from various sectors, including 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, lawyers, academics, and student and youth organizations. We have long been advocating for the passage of a Freedom of Information Act, a promise to the Filipino people that the Constitution assured in 1987 yet.

We congratulate and thank the Chairman and members of the Committee on Public Information for starting the hearings, jointly with the Committee on Civil and Government Reorganization, on the bills pertaining to the people’s right to information. This is testament to the sustained commitment of the Senate, unequivocally demonstrated as early as the 14th Congress, to finally pass the long-overdue Freedom of Information Act. Coming from the tragic fate of the conference report in the Lower House at the last Congress, this early start by the Senate committee gives us a much needed hope. We are also happy to note that as many as 12 Senators have filed the bill, and we are also aware of the support for the measure even by those who have not filed.

In the consolidation of the measures before the committee, we respectfully propose that it adopts the bills embodying the bicameral conference report of the 14th Congress as starting point. This version has been thoroughly discussed through the full legislative process, from first reading to third reading in both Houses, to the version reconciled by the bicameral conference, and to its unanimous ratification by the Senate.

Having actively participated and monitored the process, we can say with conviction that this version has taken into careful consideration the concerns of government agencies without compromising the integrity of the people’s right to information. It has also benefited from the constructive inputs of the legislators. Specifically, on the part of the Senate in the last Congress:

  • The Committee on Public Information then chaired by Senator Alan Peter Cayetano adopted the version passed by the House (House Bill 3732) as starting point for its legislative work. It then asked the government representatives for any further concerns, and the inputs by the Civil Service Commission and the Department of Justice resulted in the refinements of the sections on criminal and administrative penalties, and the removal of the provision on civil liability. Committee members also introduced further substantive and procedural refinements, such as the introduction of a Freedom of Information Manual as an implementing tool.
  • At plenary, the committee report went through close constitutional scrutiny by Senators Miriam Defensor Santiago and Joker Arroyo. These resulted in plenary amendments on the provisions on exceptions, as well as refinements on provisions that apply to the judiciary. We attach herewith the pertinent portions of the Senate Journal containing the record of the interpellations by Senators Santiago and Arroyo as Annex “A” and Annex “B”, respectively.
  • While he did not conduct interpellation in order to speed up the legislative process, Senator Francis Escudero introduced amendments through the committee to further strengthen the record-keeping provisions of the bill. We attach the pertinent portions of the Senate Journal containing the amendments arising from the interpellations of Senators Santiago and Arroyo, and the proposal of Senator Escudero, as Annex “C” hereof.

Looking at the thirteen bills before the committee, four adopt in full the 14th Congress conference committee report. These are Senate Bills 158, 2086, 2283 and 2354 by Senators Guingona, Escudero, Santiago, and Cayetano (Alan Peter). Senate Bill 2189 by the Committee Chairman is also the conference committee version, but with a section inserted (Section 19) providing for the appropriations. We support this improvement.

Indeed, these versions are as progressive and as reasonable as a Freedom of Information Act could get. They provide a standard and definite procedure for dealing with requests for information. They clearly define a narrow list of exceptions, carefully balancing the public interest in broad disclosure with the public interest in keeping certain information secret. They secure for citizens concurrent remedies in cases of denial of access to information. They provide implementing mechanics for the public disclosure of a list of important government transactions, without need of request from anyone. They provide criminal and administrative sanctions for violation of the right to information. Finally, they introduce numerous mechanisms for the active promotion of openness in government. All these directly address the substantive and operational gaps that have made the Constitutional right to information extremely difficult to enforce in practice.

The other five bills adopt versions from earlier stages of the legislative process in the 14th Congress. Senate Bills 25, 149, 162, and 1440 by Senators Revilla, Pangilinan, Zubiri and Legarda, respectively, adopt the Senate Committee Report version. Senate Bill 11 by Senator Trillanes adopts the House version. Subject to their confirmation, we venture to say that the modifications in the conference committee version embody constructive refinements that the Senate itself introduced and unanimously approved.

This leaves us with three bills that we may regard as distinct bills. Senate bills 126 and 1254 by Senators Osmeña and Villar, respectively, are full bills with provisions that are covered by the conference committee version, but with other substantive and procedural differences. We defer our comment to these two bills pending advice from the Committee on how it will approach these two measures.

The third distinct bill is Senate Bill 1773 also filed by Senator Santiago. It has a limited and specific coverage, that is, any website, public notice, advertisement or message paid for partially or fully by government funds shall include a disclosure statement of such fact of payment and the responsible government agency. We submit that this can be consolidated with the conference committee version.

To conclude, we look to the leadership of the Chairman, the members of the joint committees, and the full Senate of the 15th Congress, to shepherd the Freedom of Information bill to its immediate passage and within a definite timeline. Only an early passage can assure us that this will not meet the tragic fate that it did in the last Congress. We also appeal to the Committee and to the Senate to defend the measure from any provision intended to frustrate the right to information, or to kill the bill.

The Filipino people need and truly deserve this law. While the media will benefit from this measure, we emphasize that it cuts through all sectors and citizens, and proceeds from a constitutional public right of all. Also, while it addresses corruption, it is not solely an anti-corruption measure, but also intended for other public purposes such as participation in policy making, availing of public services, and public notice of government actions.

We trust that the Senate will not fail us, and seize the historic opportunity to fulfill the constitutional duty to provide an essential law that will secure the full functioning of the people’s right to information, to benefit our generation, and the generations to come.

Respectfully yours,

The Right to Know. Right Now! Coalition

Right to Know. Right Now! Coalition Signatories

  1. Bishop Broderick Pabillo Auxillary Bishop, Manila; National Director of CBCP- National Secretariat for Social Action, Justice&Peace (NASSA-JP)
  2. Dr. Florangel Rosario – Braid Member, 1986 Constitutional Commission and Chair, Communication, UNESCO National Commission of the Philippines
  3. Mr. Vincent T. Lazatin Transparency and Accountability Network
  4. Ms. Malou Mangahas Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism
  5. Ms. Adelina Alvarez Center for Community Journalism and Development
  6. Mr. Red Batario
  7. Atty. Roberto Cadiz LIBERTAS
  8. Prof. Luis Teodoro Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility
  9. Mr. Ramon R. Del Rosario Jr. Makati Business Club
  10. Bishop Benny M. Abante, Jr. Chairman, Committee on Public Information, 14th Congress
  11. Ms. Jenina Joy Chavez Focus on the Global South – Philippines Programme

The full text of the statement and the complete list of signatories are found here (in .pdf).