Consolidated FOI bill seen in February 2014

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In a crawl to the finish fashion, a House panel has agreed to come up with a consolidated version of the 19 Freedom of Information (FOI) bills filed in the 16th Congress by February 2014—a consensus marred by persistent opposition and a call to exempt the wealth statement of officials from the FOI coverage.

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This developed after the House Committee on Public Information, voting 10 to 5, adopted the motion made by FOI author and Rep. Emmeline Aglipay of Democratic Independent Workers Association party-list which tasks the Technical Working Group (TWG) to come up with a consolidated version of the FOI bill by February 2014.

The agreement was reached after three hours of debates and staunch opposition on the said deadline by Reps. Gwendolyn Garcia of Cebu, Celso Lobregat of Zamboanga City and Rep. Rodrigo Abellanosa of Cebu City who repeatedly argued that setting a deadline is premature since the TWG is yet to be convened.

“To set a deadline is not to put the cart before the horse because the mother Committee, which is the House public info panel, has the power to delegate tasks and responsibilities to the TWG, including a timeline in drafting a consolidated bill. We will do our best to put in together,” Aglipay said during the hearing.

The FOI bill implements the right of the people to information on matters of public concern and the state policy of full public disclosure of all its transactions involving public interest thru mandatory posting of wealth statement of public officials and providing access to information being used for decision making or project management, including transcripts and minutes of official meetings, provided that there is a legitimate request.

Only Garcia, Lobregat, Abellanosa, Reps. Magnolia Nadres and Isagani Amatong of Zamboanga del Norte voted against Aglipay’s motion.

“Despite what happened today, I would not say that this year is tougher compared with the last Congress. During the last Congress, the Right of Reply (ROR) is included in the FOI. Now, it is a separate bill, so that is an improvement,” Aglipay later told reporters in the aftermath of the hearing.

Aglipay was referring to the ROR measure which mandates media outfits to allot the same amount of airtime and space for the subject which has been a subject of a critical report—encroaching the Freedom of the Press provided under the Constitution and the editorial powers of the media organizations.

Before Aglipay’s motion was adopted, Nadres underscored that she is in favor of the FOI but protested the mandatory release of the Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) of public officials which is provided under the majority of proposed FOI bills.

“The Freedom of Information bill is important, but the privacy and security of public officials should also be respected. Our SALN does not only contain our assets, it also provides our home address and the names of our children—information that have nothing to do with our duties as public officials,” Nadres said.

“We also have to ensure the security of our family members,” Nadres added.

The Code of Conduct for Public Officials and Government Employees, an existing law, mandates government employees of truthfully disclosing their assets and liabilities in SALN for the public to monitor if the public official has used his or her position to enrich him/herself. LLANESCA T. PANTI

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