Rep. Evardone Targeted for Blocking Philippine FOI Bill

6 August 2012

Advocates for passage of a freedom of information law in the Philippines have begun an advertising blitz targeting a key House committee chairman, Rep. Ben Evardone, who is widely viewed as the major impediment to passing the bill.

A cartoon shows a tensely smiling Evardone dribbling a basketball labeled “Freedom of Information.” A caption says: “Evardone Out to Dribble FOI to Death; Will P-Noy, Belmonte Stand Idly By?”

The effort which includes newspaper and television ads is organized by The Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition, a network of more than 150 organizations from various sectors supporting passage of a FOI bill.

Evardone, according to one media report. replied, “I think the accusation that I’m trying to kill the FOI is baseless and misplaced…. I would like to put it on record that I’m not against FOI. In fact, I am fully behind the spirit and intent of the FOI. It is just that there are issues and concerns that need to be resolve.”

The same article indicates that he was planning an Aug. 7 vote, but deferred at the request of House Speaker Feliciano “Sonny” Belmonte, who said he wanted him to reschedule to allow for a caucus first. The Coalition’s lengthy Aug. 6 statement derides other of Evardone’s  justifications for not moving faster. The Coalition ad also seeks to prod action by  Belmonte and the Aquino administration, who FOI bill supporters believe also are to blame for lack of House action on the bill.

Evardone also was quoted as saying, “There are contending issues that need to be resolved first and I believe those issues can be hammered out in a caucus of the leaders and members of the ruling coalition. I think this will expedite the process and will prevent heated, spirited, and highly divisive debates in the committee level and in the plenary,”

A major issue that has emerged is whether to amend the FOI bill to allow a so-called Right of Reply, which would require media groups to give equal space and time for subjects of negative news to respond to allegations against them.

In a newspaper ad for the bill includes the signatures of 117 members of the House of Representativeswho support the bill.  They responded to a signature campaign by the FOI bill’s principal authors, including Deputy Speaker Lorenzo “Erin” Tañada III and Akbayan Rep Walden Bello.

Other Commentary

The mention of “P-Noy” in the cartoon refers to the administration of President Benigno Aquino. The president endorsed FOI when running for president but it took until late last year before he backed a specific bill. Critics still feel that his support is lackluster, thus allowing members of his own party in the House to move slowly. The Senate has passed a bill.

Additional commentary on the status of the bill and the need for it comes in a blog post by the Center for People Empowerment in Government. The post reviews some signs seen as hopeful indicators that President Benign Aquino wants to fight corruption and then observes:

But at odds with that perception is the by now obvious Aquino resistance to the passage of an authentic—meaning a law that will indeed enhance public access to information rather than restrict it–Freedom of Information act. That resistance seems based on the fear that public and media access to government-held information would compromise “national security,” and hamper government agencies’ capacity to make and implement policy by opening those agencies and their officials to excessive public scrutiny.

Text of Coalition Aug. 6 Statement

Evardone Out to Dribble FOI to Death: Will P-Noy, Belmonte Stand Idly By?

HE IS the chairman of the Committee on Public Information of the House of Representatives and should expectedly be the first and foremost advocate of the Freedom of Information bill. But by his inertia and inaction, Rep. Ben Evardone is acting quite the contrary: He seems to be dribbling the FOI to certain death in the 15th Congress.

The Right to Know. Right Now! Coalition believes that Evardone has become the first and foremost stumbling block to moving the FOI bill out from his committee to the House plenary. At a press briefing hosted by Rep. Walden Bello of Akbayan! Monday at the House of Representatives, the Coalition members said Evardone seems bent on using his power as committee chair to prevent rather than push the passage of the FOI bill.

Evardone’s dribble

As early as February 2011, Deputy Speaker and Quezon Rep. Lorenzo “Erin” Tañada, chair of the Committee’s Technical Working Group (TWG), had submitted to Evardone a proposed consolidated version of the FOI bill based on agreements at a committee hearing and a TWG meeting.

Consideration of the TWG report by Evardone’s committee was interrupted by the work of a Malacañang study group on the administration’s version of the bill.

The study group transmitted its proposed amended version to Evardone’s committee on 2 February 2012, with President Aquino’s endorsement. Eight days later on 10 February 2012, Tañada promptly submitted a revised consolidated bill integrating Malacañang’s proposed amendments.

But instead of acting swiftly on the new consolidated bill, Evardone took his own sweet time, and waited for more than a month before holding a committee hearing on March 13. At this hearing, the committee members identified the remaining matters for decision in the next hearing, including whether to integrate a right-of-reply provision proposed by Nueva Ecija Rep. Rodolfo Antonino, to extend coverage of the law to the private sector as proposed by Rep. Pedro Romualdo, and to respond to the proposal of Rep. Lani Mercado-Revilla to introduce protection against erroneous information or data in government records. The committee also agreed to allow Rep. Teddy Casiño an opportunity to raise some concerns on the expansion of exemptions proposed by Malacañang.

Yet again, instead of calling a hearing to decide on these few remaining matters, on agreement of the Committee members, Evardone waffled and wasted precious time, and failed to hold another hearing on the FOI bill – until the Congress adjourned sine die on June 7, 2012.

In June 2012, reporters and stakeholders had asked Evardone to account for his extended inaction on the FOI bill. He replied that he was finding it difficult to consolidate 15 proposed FOI measures, as if these are all so far apart in purpose, spirit, and letter. In truth almost all the 15 bills propose the full adoption or passage en toto of the bicameral conference report that failed to pass the 14th Congress.  Only a few distinct provisions, including those that the Committee members had identified in March 2012, awaited resolution.

To counter criticisms then, Evardone announced to the media that he would place the FOI on the “front burner” after President Aquino had delivered his state-of-the-nation address on 23 July 2012. He announced to one and all that he would call a Committee hearing on 7 August 2012.

Tomorrow this day appointed by Evardone is due up. But by all accounts, he had no intention to hold a Committee hearing, and is now just digging some more from his deep pocket of palusot.

Various media agencies had inquired with Evardone, his staff, and the Committee on Public Information received all sorts of excuses for his failure to hold a hearing tomorrow.

To one media agency, he said he had yet to clear with Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. if the FOI bill has to be discussed at a caucus of the leaders of the political parties in the House.

To another, he said the scheduled plenary vote on the Reproductive Health bill tomorrow afternoon might leave no time for a Committee hearing on the FOI bill – when, in fact, committee hearings are typically held in the mornings.

Other reporters who inquired with Evardone’s staff were told that the Committee chair has not yet taken the first steps to prepare for a hearing: send out notices to the members, and book a meeting room.

Not reflective of the position of committee members

Evardone’s inaction on the FOI bill does not find support from his own Committee members.

The two Vice Chairpersons of the Committee, Rep. Rodante Marcoleta and Rep Rachel Marguerite Del Mar, are among the 117 members of the House of Representatives who had signed on to “A Statement of Commitment to Pass the FOI Law,” on initiative of Akbayan! Rep. Walden Bello and other FOI champions in the House. Just as well, 19 of the 26 members of the Committee on Public Information are also signatories.

The statement offers a direct reply to Evardone’s supposed concern, or in truth palusot, that the integration of the right of reply clause in the FOI bill remains an intractable issue.

In their statement, the 117 House members said:  “We acknowledge concerns over potential abuse by citizens and media of the FOI law. But our response is neither to prevent its passage nor to insist on imposing a right of reply as a condition to its passage. Instead, we affirm our faith that Filipinos will be responsible in the exercise of a right that is theirs in the first place, even as we support providing a reasonable, broadly acceptable safeguard against abuse of FOI.”

Will P-Noy and Speaker Take Side of FOI?

As a candidate in May 2010, President Aquino had promised to enact an FOI law as a strategic pillar of his “daang matuwid” administration. His study group has proposed, and he has endorsed, an FOI version that includes amendments to address his concerns.

For his part, Speaker Belmonte has included the FOI bill in his original legislative agenda at the start of the 15th Congress, and affirmed this again in his statement at the opening of the third regular session of the 15th Congress on 23 July 2012.

We have seen the President and the Speaker marshal the administration coalition for measures they want to prioritize, including some very testy and controversial, and thus hounded by strong opposition.

But even without as vigorous push for the FOI bill from the President and the Speaker, we note that five of the six Deputy Speakers of the House are also among the 117 members of Congress who have affixed their signature to a statement of commitment to pass the FOI law.

In the statement, the lawmakers said: “We, members of the House of Representatives, heed the people’s clamor, and offer our commitment to do our part in ensuring that the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill shall finally become law before the end of the 15th Congress.”

The Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition salutes the 117 signatories of the statement as an affirmation of widespread support for the people’s campaign to pass the FOI law, despite or in spite of Evardone’s endless dribble.

We hope, too, that the President and the Speaker would read in the statement a clarion call for leadership, a challenge for them to now demonstrate their own commitment to pass the law, despite or in spite of Evardone’s inertia and inaction.

The nation awaits clear and firm signals: Will the President and the Speaker finally assume leadership on the FOI bill? Or will they join in Evardone’s endless palusot to dribble the bill to death?

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