Delay May Doom FOI Bill in Philippines House, Again

13 November 2012

A committee of the Philippines House Nov. 13 failed to pass the much-delayed freedom of information bill prompting supporters to declare the bill not only dead, but “murdered.”

Committee Chairman Ben Evardone forced the adjournment of the inconclusive meeting with a procedural move, thwarting Representatives supporting the bill, who had demanded a final vote, according to media reports in the Inquirer, Rappler, GMA, and the Sun Star.

Deputy Speaker Lorenzo Tañada III, a leading advocate of the bill, was quoted as telling reporters later, “It’s going to be a crawl to the finish line and I don’t think we can crawl as fast we want.” With a Christmas adjournment upcoming, time for completing action is considered very short.

Evardone said he postponed a vote on the consolidated bill until Nov. 27 because of unresolved issues, particularly demands to give officials the “right of reply” to media reports.

“The FOI bill is dead, actually murdered in its tracks,” said the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition in a post-meeting statement. “Its butchers? The lackadaisical Evardone. The mindlessly perorating Antonino. The President and his flaccid support. [Speaker Feliciano] Belmonte, [Majority Floorleader Neptali] Gonzalez, and the Liberal Party leaders of the House, by propping and blessing Evardone’s duplicity on the FOI bill,” they added.

Representative Teddy Casiño commented, “Such incompetence can only be deliberate.”

Delays, Debate

The FOI bill was placed last on a 14-item agenda, so the Committee on Public got started with a 45 minute discussion of a bill on designating Filipino sign language as the national sign language. Then it approved a proposal declaring Nov. 3 as Press Freedom Day.

Antonino Seeks Right-to-Reply

During the two-hour meeting in a packed meeting room, Representative Rodolfo Antonino filled much of the hour devoted to the FOI bill by pressing Tañada, chairman of the technical working group (TWG) bill, about why a right-to-reply clause wasn’t included in the consolidated bill.

Tañada said Antonino’s right-to-reply bill was introduced months after the FOI bill was prepared and that the failure to hold House hearings inhibited its consideration,

“We went through the process. We were ready with [the] substitute bill by February last year.

It is now the prerogative of the mother committee to whether include the right-of-reply provision or not,” Tañada said, according to GMA.

“The crux of the problem here, sad to say, is that the mother committee failed to call for a hearing with regard to [the] FOI. If the mother committee called a hearing, Congressman Antonino’s bill could have been referred to the TWG,” Tañada said.

Vote Blocked

Representatives Walden Bello and Rufus Rodriguez Akbayan Rep Walden Bello called for a vote on the consolidated bill.

Evardone opposed it, saying there were still pending “contentious issues.” Agreeing, Antonino moved for the session’s adjournment.

Tañada sought to extend the hearing but Evardone said that they had no permission from the House secretariat to do so, citing a House rule which requires all members to be at the plenary hall during sessions.

“Committee members argued over the fact that a motion to vote had already been raised, leaving the committee chairman to decide on whether the motion to vote should be granted or the hearing should be adjourned,” Rappler reported.

Evardone left the room for about 5 minutes. Upon returning he adjourned the meeting.

If a meeting is held Nov 27, Congress only has 18 working days left to approve the bill before it adjourns for the Christmas break on December 21.

FOI legislation also failed to pass in 2011, blocked in a contentious House vote late in the previous session.

Right to No, Right Now! Statement

The statement in full text:

BATTERY, ASSAULT, and MURDER – this was what happened to the FOI bill today, Nov. 13, 2012, at the hearing of the Committee on Public Information of the House of Representatives.

The FOI bill is dead in the 15th Congress.

By ensuring that no committee report will be approved in today’s hearing, the House Committee on Public Information has for all intents and purposes left no time for any FOI measure to get approved in the 15th Congress.

Committee Chair Ben Evardone was the biggest disappointment of all. His error: a dismal failure of leadership.

First, Evardone enrolled the FOI bill as the last of eight items on the committee’s agenda. When the committee finally discussed the FOI bill, Evardone next allowed Rep. Rodolfo Antonino to hijack most of the proceedings and perorate endlessly on how Antonino’s right of reply bill was not considered by the committee’s Technical Working Group (TWG) led by FOI proponent Rep. Erin Tanada.

In effect, Antonino made certain that the committee’s time was wasted on his redundant insistence on having his complaint heard. In truth, Antonino had already raised the very same issue at the last committee hearing in March. In fact, Antonino’s complaint was already resolved in that last hearing.

In the end the committee lost time to discuss any substantive issues on the FOI, particularly the contents of the bill.

And when a motion was made and seconded to put the consolidated bill to a vote, Antonino, who used up most of the committee’s time to complain about the TWG, promptly moved to adjourn the committee hearing, citing a technicality which was sustained by the committee chairman.

What happened today was just the final blow delivered by Evardone and Antonino, which left the rest of the committee members uncannily helpless to stop the slaughter of the FOI.

By all indications, the conspiracy to kill the FOI bill had commenced much earlier.

President Benigno S. Aquino III led the battery and assault on FOI, with his mindless “concerns” about the bill. In January 2012, at the height of the Corona impeachment trial, he all too suddenly endorsed the bill, albeit in a few perfunctory press statements only. But in the next eight months, nothing more was heard from him by way of real proof of endorsement of the bill.

The President’s Liberal Party allies in the House, led by Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. and Majority Leader Neptali Gonzalez III, did not move either. They neither pushed nor nudged the bill to fruition. Evardone did not call committee hearings until today.

The FOI bill is dead, actually murdered on its tracks. Its butchers? The lackadaisical Evardone. The mindlessly perorating Antonino. The President and his flaccid support. Belmonte, Gonzalez, and the Liberal Party leaders of the House, by propping and blessing Evardone’s duplicity on the FOI bill.

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