Aquino FOI Bill Sparks Debate, Amendment Ideas

6 February 2012

Now that Philippine President Benigno Aquino has submitted  his freedom of information bill, proposals to expand it have surfaced and critics are calling it too timid.

FOI advocates had known the bill would fall below their expectations, but decided to compromise in order to fulfill a decade-old goal of passing a FOI law.

Proponents in the Congress continue to be optimistic about prompt passage, judging by media accounts, with estimates of June. Legislators continue to urge Aquino to make the FOI bill an official priority.

One potential amendment entering the discussion would require more disclosures b government officials to disclose their assets, liabilities, and net worth. The Aquino bill enters an environment  populated with more than a dozen alternative FOI bills.

Quezon Representative Lorenzo Tañada III said that he would insert such a provision in the FOI bill which would bar public officials from making any corrections on their declared SALNs once these are posted on government websites, according to an article by Gil Caanacungan in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

In a similar vein, interest has been expressed in requiring disclosure of projects benefitting particular lawmakers, their use of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), something the Aquino bill does not.

Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, a member of the good governance cluster of the Cabinet, said this was because the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) was already disclosing PDAF-related information of House members on its website, according to an Inquirer article by Norman Bordadora.

“Abad nonetheless said the administration would welcome an amendment to the bill for a more explicit disclosure requirement of the lawmakers’ pork barrel,” the article said..

 Criticisms Emerge

 Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Teddy Casiño said the FOI bill “was nothing but a watered-down version of the FOI measures pending in Congress,” according to an Inquirer article.

Casiño, principal author of one of the FOI bills filed in the House of Representatives, said, “What is really significant in the Palace version is its watering down of the FOI by including a long list of 16 exceptions to the measure to include ‘records of minutes and advice given and opinions expressed during decision-making or policy formulation, invoked by the Chief Executive to be privileged….’”

“The lawmaker also said that in the Palace version, information relating to law enforcement and defense had six exceptions, giving police and defense officials very wide leeway in hiding information on violations of human rights and international humanitarian law,” according to the article.

Casiño also called the Aquino bill a “publicity stunt” and that other pending bills are superior.

 “What we really need is the political will and push from President Aquino or Speaker Feliciano Belmonte to pass this bill. The truth is, the President does not want this bill to pass,” Casiño was quoted as saying.

Media rights’ organization, Burgos Media Center, expressed doubts Feb. 5 on the motives of Malacañang in transmitting its own version of the FOI bill..

BMC spokesperson Marc Joseph Alejo said, the Palace’s version of the FOI bill is relatively weak and he doubts what particular sector of the society that the said legislation is “serving.”

The media rights advocate criticized a provision of the bill which exempts bilateral agreements between the Philippines and other countries.

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