Aquino Urges Passage of Modified FOI Bill

6 January 2012

President Benigno Aquino has approved his version of freedom of information legislation, altering it to drop a proposal for an information commission.

The president’s recommendation for congressional approval was heralded as yet another sign of potential progress toward enactment.  The elimination of a commission clause did not distress supporters because they expect that the alternative of FOI administration through an existing ombudsman will be effective.

The announcement came after Aquino met for several hours Jan. 4 with Secretaries Florencio Abad, Rene Almendras, Ricky Carandang, Edwin Lacierda and Undersecretary Manuel L. Quezon III to discuss the details of the bill.

The president told them “ ‘to push ahead’ ” with the FOI bill, Quezon said at a press briefing. Aquino thought the proposed information commission would add another layer of bureaucracy, Quezon said, according to media reports such as one by the Philippines News Agency, another by GMA News, and one by The Philippines Star.

Aquino supported a FOI bill when he ran for President in the May 2010, but since then has been criticized for inaction during a period in which he regularly expressed concerns about the bill. When his support for a bill drafted by his advisers was revealed in December, supporters of FOI legislation chose to support it, despite their own reservations about its limitations. (See previous FreeedomInfo.org report.)

 “Basically, everyone has been asking where does the President stand on this? Does the President have any more reservations or questions or is he getting in the way of this? And I think this is as categorical an answer as everyone has wanted to hear and he is saying ‘push ahead’,” Quezon said.

Deputy House Speaker Lorenzo Tañada, a FOI supporter, said later in a statement, “Together with the champions and advocates in the House, I will organize talks with the Speaker and the committee on public information chair for the next concrete steps and definite timeline.” Quezon said the Aquino administration will submit its proposals as amendments to the Tañada bill.

Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone, chairperson of the House committee on public information, told GMA News that said he sees the smooth passage of the FOI bill at the committee level and at the plenary once the Palace submits its version to Congress.
 
“We have been very anxious of this development. This will definitely hasten the approval of the FOI bill,” Evardone said.  “It does not mean that we will adopt it hook, line and sinker,” he also told GMA News.

Aurora Representative Juan Edgardo Angara said, “Hopefully now, it will speed up the process of FOI’s passage. If passed, it will be a quantum leap in the fight for good government and it may be his most lasting legacy.” 
 
Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III said “it is about time” to act on the measure.

Buyan Muna Rep. Teddy Casino, a leading FOI bill sponsor,  welcomed the “super belated” Aquino proposal,  but said that it “may still contain too many exceptions so as to render the law ineffective and toothless,” according to an article which reviews criticisms of the bill in bulatlat.com.

Loss of Commission Not Considered a Problem

The information commission was included in the version developed by Aquino’s advisers, but his opposition to it did not disturb FOI supporters.  

The bicameral version that came close to passage in June 2012, and which is the basis for most of the bills in the Lower House and the Senate, identifies the existing Office of the Ombudsman as the independent appeals body.

In a recent rating exercise using a system development by the Centre for Law and Democracy, a nongovernmental group based in Canada, the ombudsman system actually scored better than the information commission idea.  The Ombudsman is a constitutional body with high degree of independence and strong investigative, administrative, and prosecutorial powers.

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