FOI Bill Not Prioritized by Aquino Administration

7 February 2011

New Philippine President Benigno Aquino III has left the Freedom of Information bill off his short list of legislative goals, despite having indicated during the campaign that it would be a priority.

At a briefing Feb. 7, presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said “certain issues” concerning the FOIA bill are under study, but did not elaborate, according to media reports such as one by GMA News and another by ABS-CGN News.

On Feb. 8, the president elaborated himself, saying he is uncomfortable with “raw information” being made public.  As an example he said “panic” could have resulted from premature disclosure of a report that “youth ambassadors” from the Philippines were returning from a country in Asia infected with SARS.

Aquino said his administration is being transparent. He told reporters: “We have not avoided any question that has been thrown our way. So even in the absence of any Freedom of Information Law, we have been trying to be transparent to the utmost level possible”

Seventeen bills will be presented as top priority matters to a consultative body, the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC) on Feb. 28.  LEDAC is composed of the President as chairman, 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, the youth, and the private sector.

Supporters of the FOI bill had hoped that the bill, which narrowly missed being passed in June 2010, would make the cut.  “Aquino had mentioned in his first State of the Nation Address in July 2010 that among the bills to be prioritized are the Freedom of Information bill, whistle-blowers bill, and the fiscal responsibility bill,” noted The Philippines Star.  The Whistle-Blowers Protection Act also was not included on the priority list.

Lacierda said, “There are certain issues on FOI bill. Number 1, the President believes in the constitutional right to access information, that is given. However, there are certain concerns that must be addressed, yun medyo sensitive at pinag-aaralan.

The Right to Know. Right Now! Coalition on Feb. 2 wrote to Aquino, signaling a willingness to refine the bill and urging his support. The coalition provided a detailed memo prepared by Deputy Speaker Lorenzo R. Tañada III addressing points of concern raised by Herminio Coloma, Secretary, Presidential Communications Operations Office.

The letter said in part:

Specifically, we are working to streamline the list of documents for mandatory disclosure, studying further whether the bill can accommodate a deliberative process privilege as an additional exception, reconsidering the periods for responding to requests for access to information, and refining the penal provisions of the bill.

Our objective is to come up with a bill that strikes a careful and reasonable balance between the people’s right to access information and other legitimate, competing interests. Even as we express openness to further refinements to the bill, we also cannot overemphasize the necessity of a clear and decisive signal of support from your office for this measure.

A blog post by Ed Linqao of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism on Jan. 21 reported on a warning signs from the Aquino administration at a recent roundtable discussion sponsored by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.

Nepomuceno Malaluan, convenor of the Right to Know. Right Now! Coalition, “said Palace officials have even indicated their desire to add more restrictions to those already cited in the bicameral version of the FOI bill that the last Congress failed to ratify before adjourning last year. The bicam version already provided for restrictions on information concerning national security, ongoing police and military operations, and diplomatic negotiations.”

The blog post continued:

According to Malaluan, Palace Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma wants to restrict access to minutes of official meetings. Coloma, he said, argues that the knowledge that the minutes of a meeting would eventually be released to the public could discourage officials from holding a frank exchange of ideas. In addition, the Palace official reportedly wants to restrict information that is currently being used for decision making and project implementation.

Malaluan said Coloma also expressed his concern that the FOI measure would impose a potential administrative burden on government agencies. To Coloma, this could result in information requests tying up government officials and employees, and preventing them from doing their jobs, said Malaluan.

Further complicating the matter are the roughly one dozen other versions of the FOI bill that are in both chambers of congress. One version of the bill, authored by former Speaker Prospero Nograles, prevents requests for information generated in previous administrations. This “Anti-retroactivity” clause prevents the public from holding officials to account for their actions in the past. Malaluan said the Nograles version in effect states that no one can request information on past administrations, thus letting former officials off the hook.

Interestingly, it was also under Nograles’s leadership that the House of Representatives failed to ratify the FOI bill on the last day of session last year. Nograles said that the chamber fell short of the quorum by a few members, although an independent count by the PCIJ showed that there were enough congressmen present to put the bill to a vote.

With all these concerns, Malaluan said it is not clear if President Aquino had included the FOI bill in the list of 12 priority measures that he was submitting to Congress.

NUJP Secretary General Rowena Paraan said concerned media organizations have vowed to go on a full-court press for the FOI bill by holding Aquino and his congressional allies to his promise of transparency. Paraan said these moves would take the form of finding FOI “champions” in the press corps of both the House and the Senate, as well as identifying sympathetic editors in the newsrooms of major publications and networks.

The groups also vowed to oppose moves by some members of Congress to hold the FOI hostage to the passage of the proposed Right of Reply bill, which many media groups find unconstitutional. Media groups present during the roundtable discussion include the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, Newsbreak, ABS-CBN, GMA-7, TV5, Businessworld, and the Philippine Center for Photojournalism.

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