THE passage of the Freedom of Information bill was never an issue in the Senate.
In fact, the upper chamber in the last three congresses had consistently approved its version of the measure which seeks to strengthen the people’s right to public information.
The first FOI bill was filed in Congress in 1992. However, 23 years later, the country has yet to enact a law that will empower its citizens by providing access to government information making them active participants in the fight against graft and corruption.
Section 7, Article III of the Philippine Constitution states: “The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized. Access to official records, and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.”
But legislators have a difficult time passing the bill, raising doubts on the sincerity of the lawmakers in promoting transparency in government.
Last year, the Senate passed its latest version of the FOI measure which was sponsored by Sen. Grace Poe, the chairperson of the Senate Committee on public information and mass media.
The bill, which got 22 votes, aims to eliminate corruption by opening government transactions to the public and holding government officials accountable for their actions.
Under Senate Bill 1733, the public will have the right to request and be granted access to records or information that is under the control of government.
Government officials are required to act on the request for information within 15 working days or face administrative and disciplinary sanction including one month to six months imprisonment and a fine ranging from P10,000 to P100,000.
However, the Senate set some exemptions on the information that can be accessed by the public—those that would jeopardize national security, foreign relations, law enforcement operations, trade and economic secrets, individual’s right to privacy, privileged information given in judicial proceedings or information made in executive sessions of Congress and those that are covered by presidential privilege.
But these exemptions can’t be used to cover up a crime, wrongdoing, graft or corruption, or other illegal activities.
Another salient provision on the Senate FOI is the access to the Statements of Assets, Liabilities and New Worth (SALNs) of the President, Vice President, Cabinet members, senators, congressmen, justices of the Supreme Court, members of the Constitutional bodies and officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Philippine National Police (PNP) bearing star ranks and government officials with salary grade 27 and above and head of agencies.
Government agencies will be required to upload and post, on their respective websites, the SALNs of those officials mentioned.
Prior to Poe’s FOI bill, the Senate during the 15th Congress also approved its version of FOI called People’s Ownership of Government Information (POGI) Act of 2012, which was introduced by Sen. Gregorio Honasan 2nd. The House of Representatives however failed to pass its version which was stuck in the committee level.
The bill calls for the full disclosure of information on projects, transactions, documents and records pertaining to public interest.
But even if the Senate did its part in passing the FOI bill, the House of Representatives has yet to act on its version.
The Aquino administration, despite its supposed good governance and anti-corruption advocacy, has refused to certify the FOI bill as urgent to make sure that it will be passed before time runs out.