Openness and transparency – these are two of the weapons the citizenry needs to protect itself from the powerful and the corrupt— these are the very core of the freedom of information bill, the bill that would enable the implementation of Article III, section 7 of the 1987 Constitution says: “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.”
The right to and freedom of information is not only mentioned in the Philippine Constitution. It is also included in the 1946 declaration of the United Nations which provides that the freedom of information is an essential factor in promoting peace and progress in the world and as such, it is recognized as a fundamental human right.
In fact, over 95 countries around the world have implemented freedom of information legislation, the oldest of which is Sweden’s Freedom of the Press Act of 1766. The United States has the Open Records Laws, also known as Sunshine Laws; Canada has the Access to Information Act, which allows citizens to demand records from federal bodies. Meanwhile, Colombian has Law 57 of 1985 mandating the publications of acts and official documents belonging to official facilities. Law 57 is further strengthened by the anti-corruption statement of Law 190 of 1955 also known as anti-corruption act which requires public offices to list in visible areas all the contracts and purchases made by month by month.
Despite this worldwide move to allow access by the general public to data held by national governments, the passage of the FOI into law remains to be an uphill battle in the Philippines.
The FOI bill was first filed in 1992 by then first district of Pangasinan Rep. Oscar Orbos. The measure passed the third and final reading in both houses of Congress in June of 2010 but the House of Representatives led by then Speaker Prospero Nograles failed to ratify the measure allegedly for lack of quorum.
When Pres. Aquino assumed the presidency in 2010, everyone was hoping the FOI would be passed into law. Unfortunately, despite Pres. Aquino’s campaign promise to make the FOI one of his priorities once elected, it remains to languish in the House of Representatives, while it has been passed by the Senate.
What is even more frustrating is that, the passage of the FOI was never mentioned in the previous SONAs. Neither was it ever certified as a priority and urgent measure in the Legislative Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC) meetings.
The LEDAC was created by Republic Act 7640 during the time of Pres. Fidel Ramos in 1992. R.A. 7640 states that LEDAC shall serve as a consultative and advisory body to the President as the head of the national economic and planning agency for further consultations and advice on certain programs and policies essential to the realization of the goals of the national economy. The LEDAC also serves as a venue to facilitate high level policy discussions on vital issues and concerns affecting national development.
The President chairs the LEDAC. Its members include the Vice President, the Senate President, the House Speaker, seven Cabinet members, three senators, three House members and one representative each from the local government, youth and private sectors. Under the law, the LEDAC is to meet at least once every quarter, but may be convened by the chair for special meetings when necessary.
Unfortunately, there have been only three LEDAC meetings since Pres. Aquino assumed office in 2010— two in 2011, and one in 2012. There were no LEDAC meetings since 2013 and 2014. Only PNoy knows if there will be another one before he steps down from office next year.
It gives us a little hope though, that in his 2016 budget message, Pres. Aquino urged Congress to pass the measure. Pres. Aquino said the FOI law is needed “to ensure the permanency of transparency policies.” The question now is, if the FOI will be tackled in the coming days, what version will prevail?
The palace-endorsed FOI bill provides that “all information pertaining to official acts, transactions or decisions, as well as government research data used as basis for policy development, regardless of their physical form or format in which they are contained and by whom they were made” should be made accessible to the public. It likewise requires all government officials including military generals, to publicize their statement of assets, liabilities, and net worth in the Internet. Not covered of course, are information pertaining to national defense, country’s foreign affairs, military and law enforcement operation, personal information about private individuals, industrial, financial, or commercial secrets of individuals or entities, as well as drafts of decisions by any executive, administrative, judicial, or quasi-judicial body.
In case a request for information is denied, the concerned agency shall do so within seven working days. The bill also provides that as a remedy, the denied party may appeal the decision to the Office of the Ombudsman.
On the other hand, a house version of the bill includes a right of reply. This means that “government officials who might be involved in issues arising from the release of public documents through FOI should be given the opportunity to reply in the same space of the printed material or in the same radio or television program where the issue was tackled.” The bill requires that the reply is aired or published not later than three days after it has been received.
Of course, we all know that the media outfits are against it, claiming the provision infringes on their editorial independence.
The FOI would have been useful in Pres. Aquino’s platform of government transparency. It would have been a powerful tool to empower the people and encourage participation in governance, and give life and meaning to his “kayo ang boss ko” slogan. After all, the government functions well with supportive citizenry— support which Pres. Aquino would have gotten easily having obtained the highest trust and approval rating.
With Pres. Aquino’s term ending next year and the coming of the budget season, I am not sure there is much time to enact the FOI bill. But I hope he pursues the measure and our Congress finds time for this important piece of legislation. It isn’t too late. Besides, huli man daw at magaling, naihahabol rin.
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