The Freedom of Information (FOI) bill finally moved forward in Congress when it was approved by the public information committee of the House of Representatives.
The panel, through a 10-3 vote, approved the consolidated version of the 24 FOI bills filed in Congress after nine Technical Working Group meetings and discussions with at least eight resource persons.
The FOI bill mandates government agencies and public officials to disclose and make available for scrutiny, copying and reproduction all information pertaining to official acts, transactions or decisions, as well as government research data used as basis for policy development. Exempted from the proposed law were pieces of information involving national security, those covered by an Executive Order (provided that the Executive Order will state until when the information will remain confidential), internal or external defense, law enforcement, border control, personal information on public officials and family members, trade secrets and privileged communications.
Democratic Independent Workers Association party-list Rep. Emmeline Aglipay-Villar and Camarines Sur Rep. Leni Robredo expressed relief over the bill’s approval.
“We have conducted thorough deliberations, went section by section, line by line, even word for word in the nine Technical Working Group (TWG) meetings. I can attest that all the objections have been discussed, and we have been able to generate refinements to the proposed FOI bill,” Aglipay-Villar said.
“It has not been easy getting this bill into fruition. It is crucial for us to send this measure to the plenary so as to give our colleagues the opportunity to deliberate on the salient provisions on the bill,” Robredo said.
But the small victory was dampened because some lawmakers from the Makabayan bloc withdrew their authorship on the ground that it prevents rather than give the public access to information.
House Deputy Minority Leader Neri Colmenares of Bayan Muna party-list noted that the approved FOI bill is toothless because its provisions on the release of Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) are still subject to existing restrictive rule that the other party should consent to its release.
“The SALN should be accessible to all, anytime. Why would we subject it to existing rules and regulations? Everybody knows that it is very difficult to get a copy of the lawmakers’ SALN. The FOI law would be of no use,” Colmenares said.
“Also, the bill says government agencies can refuse the request for information if it will frustrate executive action. That is unacceptable. Why are we making it difficult for people to access information? The access to information should be the rule. The exception cannot be the rule,” he added.
But Akbayan Rep. Ibarra Gutierrez said the measure requires government agencies to post the SALN of employees on their respective websites.
Kabataan party-list Rep. Terry Ridon said the bill “is turning out to be a tool that the powerful can use to hide their crimes, instead of exposing them.”