Aquino Seeks Changes in Philippine FOI Bill

26 November 2010

After a long post-election silence about freedom of information legislation, Philippine President Benigno Aquno has suggested various reservations.

Aquino’s support for such legislation was not at issue, but calls for him to make it a priority legislation matter went unheeded. Recently legislative action on various FOI proposals has resumed. (See previous report.)

The Aquino administration has now weighed in with its suggestions, although Communications Secretary Herminio “Sonny’’ Coloma did state support for right to information legislation.  The main concerns are about access to transcripts of meetings and pre-decisional material.

“Unbridled use of power will be curtailed by freer access to information. Acts and transaction imbued with public interest, especially those decided at the highest levels of the bureaucracy or those financed by massive sums of public funds must be beyond any cloud of doubt.’’ he said in a position paper submitted to the House committee on public information.  The development is described in an Inquirer article by TJ Burgonio.

The article says:

Coloma, however, pointed to the need to “balance broader right advocated by the bills with ensuring that government operations will not be paralyzed by gratuituous requests for information.’’

He expressed concern that access to transcripts and minutes of official meetings may diminish candid and open discussions by public officials.

“Off-the-cuff remarks, characterizations or outbursts that are recorded when important topics are tackled during these meetings may subject public officers or institutions to embarrassment or ridicule even if this is not the intent of the person requesting information,’’ he said.

That’s why, he added, institutions furnish official reports to outsiders minus “distracting information.’’

Coloma expressed similar concern over access to information currently being used for the formulation of policy, decision-making or project management.

“The smooth exercise of these functions, where regularity of actions of public officers is presumed, may be put at risk if the government agencies are subjected to requests for information at every step of the way,’’ he said.

That’s why it’s crucial to determine if the government would readily disclose information being used for decision-making, or wait for a reasonable lapse of time to do this, he said.

“The intention is not to hide information or to limit frequency of access but only to ensure that government operations are not hampered,’’ he said.

Deputy Speaker and Quezon Representative Lorenzo Tañada III said he would meet with Aquino to “go over the provisions one by one” and make proposals if needed, according another Inquirer article, by Lira Dalangin-Fernandez.

“He approves the bill in principle, he just wants to go over the provisions one by one and make sure that they do not go against the previous rulings of the Supreme Court.,” Tañada said in a phone interview.

The paper further reports:

There are at least 15 versions of the FOI bill pending before the committee on public information, including House Bill 53 authored by Tañada.

In the last Congress, the FOI bill was ratified in the Senate, but the House failed to do the same after Camiguin Representative Pedro Romualdo questioned the quorum.

This 15th Congress,  Tañada anticipates debates on a provision allowing for a retroactivity effect of the bill, which is being opposed by some lawmakers.

Contrarily, Davao City Representative Karlo Nograles, son of former Speaker Prospero Nograles, who opposed the measure, had filed his own version stating that the FOI would only cover the incumbent administration.

Tañada believes the President will be against any version of the FOI bill that does not have retroactivity effect.

Another report on the latest developments, by GMANews-TV, runs under the headline “Malacanang flip-lops on Freedom of Info Bill.”

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