Aguino Still Withholding Support for FOI Legislation

17 August 2011

Philippines President Benigno Aquino has “specific questions and concerns” about freedom of information legislation, according to a spokesman in comments after the Aquino administration bypassed another opportunity to make the bill a priority.

The inaction brought a round of condemnations from the bill’s frustrated supporters.

The legislation was not placed on a list of priority legislation  by the second Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (Ledac) for the 15th Congress’ second regular session. Aquino also failed to mention the bill in his state of the nation speech.  (See previous report.)

The FOI bill was the subject of a legislative hearing on Aug. 17 at which a key lawmaker pledged to pass the bill (SunStar)  and an administration official reiterated doubts and promised eventual action (GMA News and The Inquirer.) GMA reported:

Communications Strategy Secretary Ricky Carandang said the Palace did not mention or prioritize the FOI bill, a landmark piece of legislation that will lift the shroud of secrecy over government transactions and data, during the Legislative Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC) because they do not feel that they are “ready” to submit a draft of the measure that would address everybody’s concerns.

Aquino Criticized

The National Union of Journalists in the Philippines expressed disappointment over the bill’s exclusion from the priority list. NUJP chair Nestor Burgos told The Inquirer that the development  was a “big letdown” because Aquino’s spokespersons had given assurances that it would be a priority.

The Right to Know Right Now Coalition issued a critical and detailed statement of disappointment:

The President says he supports the bill in principle, but that he has “specific questions and concerns” that he wants to be settled, before he endorses it as his priority legislation. His concerns, the President says, include his fears that FOI could unlock documents that might expose people to kidnappers, cause government losses in right-of-way cases because of property price speculations, and many other unwanted results.

Yet over the last 14 months in office, he has failed to answer and settle these concerns, and for as long a period, the FOI bill has languished in limbo.

A Malacañang study group on the FOI had told us about other, bigger concerns of the President. Through Deputy Speaker and Quezon Rep. Erin Tañada, chief author of the FOI bill in the House of Representatives, we informally and indirectly engaged the study group in constructive dialogue over the last six months.

Two critical concerns on exceptions were addressed over time in three successive drafts of the FOI bill that the Palace study group crafted – “national security” and the President’s deliberative process. These were in addition to existing exceptions in the FOI bill based on national defense and foreign affairs; military or law enforcement operation; privacy; trade, industrial or commercial secrets; drafts of adjudicatory decisions; privileged information in legal proceedings; executive session of Congress; and exceptions recognized in other statutes or the Constitution.

The legislative process practically ground to a halt, precisely because the President and his study group said they were drafting their own FOI bill. We had hoped that by the opening of the second regular session of Congress, the Palace draft would be done, and the President would have certified it as a priority measure.

We had hoped as much because we still remember: As the presumptive winner of the May 2010 elections, the President had promised to assign first priority to the FOI’s passage into law, and in June 2010, as president, he launched his government on the principles of transparency, accountability, and good governance.

This is the first time we are hearing that the President has new concerns about what he says could be the undesirable results of an FOI law.

The President assures us that he supports the FOI bill “in principle” but that because his concerns linger, he could not act on his own study group’s version of the FOI bill.

What seems like a state of principled indecision in Malacañang makes us wonder: Is the President part of the solution, or part of the problem, in assuring the passage of the FOI bill? Or perhaps neither, because he has chosen to pass up a chance to lead on a strategic policy issue that the Constitution has so clearly mandated him and all public officials to uphold and enforce – the people’s right to know.

The fate of the FOI bill was a leadership call on the President. We had not wished he would default. Yet because he has, we now refocus our efforts on the House of Representatives and the Senate, which should, without need for cue or advice from Malacañang, act now and quickly on the FOI bill.

We do so with eyes wide open that as it was in the 14th Congress under then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the FOI bill could face rough, tough sailing in the 15th Congress. While Mrs. Arroyo and her allies vigorously opposed and killed the bill before it could be ratified, Mr. Aquino and his allies now seem to want to let the bill waste away, and fade in time.

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