Philippine House to Delay Work FOI Bill Until 2013

17 December 2012

By Toby McIntosh

The Philippines House won’t take up a freedom of information bill until next year, when there will be only a two-week window for a vote.

Senate action is completed now, but the bill’s biggest hurdle historically has been in the House.

The House plans to returns Jan. 21, 2013, but the session will end on Feb. 8. Critics are expected to offer numerous amendments, further complicating passage. If it passes, however, reconciling the House and Senate versions is not expected to be complicated.

The Senate on Dec. 16 voted 17-0 to approve its FOI bill on third and final reading.

One supporter, Sen. Gregorio Honasan III said, “If we are serious about the sustainable development of our democracy as we are about our economy, transparency and open government must be at its core.” Honasan in January 2012 had confidently predicted a bill would be on President Benigno Aquino’s desk in the first quarter of this year. (See previous report.)

Tight Deadline Was Years in the Making

Others have made similalry over-optimistic predictions. Delay has dogged the FOI bill for years, even before June of 2010 when the House in a frenzied final day of the last session was unable to muster a quorum for a vote.

Slow motion would best describe the course for the bill in the ensuing two and a half years.

Many supporters of the bill, with hope for passage alive but fading, blame not only a key House member, but also top House leaders and President Benigno Aquino.

Much of the delay in 2012 is attributed to the chairman of the Committee on Public Information, Rep. Ben Evardone, a former journalist and declared supporter. He did not put the bill on the agenda until Nov. 13, after many months of suggesting that action was around the corner.

When the bill came up, last on the agenda, Evardone ended the meeting without allowing a vote, at which point supporters bitterly pronounced the bill “murdered.” (See previous report.)  Evardone did not reconvene the committee until Nov 27, when it passed by a comfortable 17-3 margin, with one abstention. (See previous report.) Supporters are confident they have commitments for a favorable House vote, if one is held.

Another two weeks of inaction ensued because Evardone ordered another committee meeting, held Dec. 11, for the signing of the committee report, a routine procedure often done without a meeting. (See previous report.)

Evardone has said he will officially present the bill to the House Dec. 17, but no vote on the bill will be held before the House adjourns Dec. 22 for a Christmas break.

Evardone’s year-end actions cap a year of promises, usually accompanied by statements in which he said was pursuing a balanced approach. For example, in June he anticipated committee consideration in July. (See previous report.)  He was quoted as saying, “I’m trying to come up with an acceptable formula on the conflicting provisions of the FOI and the right of reply bills without compromising the right of the people to information.”

In August, FOI advocates begun an advertising blitz featuring a cartoon showing 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?”

Aquino Leadership Faulted

Many supporters of the bill also blame the Aquino administration for not pushing harder for passage after pledging to support FOI during the election campaign. It took the administration more than a year to develop legislation it could support.

They urged him to designate the FOI bill as a legislative priority for several years to no avail. In recent days, Aquino prioritized a controversial reproductive health legislation, which will open the door for free contraceptives and government-funded sex education. That bill passed Dec. 17.

Aquino, while a declared FOI supporter, indicated little urgency to press Congress to act. The bill did not merit a mention in his 2012 state of the nation speech, nor in the 2011 or 2010 addresses.

After the bill’s demise on June 4, 2010 (see previous report), it was not until February of 2011 that the administration created in internal task force to develop its own version of a FOI bill. (See previous report.) The internal deliberations would take many months.

In May 2011, the Right to Know, Right Now Coalition sent a letter to Aquino urging him to lead on the issue. “We believe that a key reason for the lack of progress on the FOI bill in Congress is perceived lack of decisive support from the executive branch, in particular from the President,” the coalition wrote. (See previous report.)

Aquino spoke at the inaugural event for the Open Government Partnership Sept. 20, 2011, in New York, without mentioning FOI.  The Philippines is a founding member of the OGP and serves on the Steering Committee.  

[The Philippines scored 15 out of the 16 possible points to become an OGP member. Although it lacks a FOI law, the Philippines scored a three out of the possible four points in the access to information category by virtue of having a 1987 constitutional provision on access to information. A constitutional provision, according to the OGP, equates with a FOI law, which also earns a country three points. The scoring was done in 2011. The fourth point is awarded if a country has a draft access to information law under consideration.]

In November of 2011 the president voiced his hesitations about FOI, saying in a YouTube interview that “the devil is in the details.” He suggested three scenarios in which the disclosure of information might have negative effects. (See previous report.)

In early January of 2012, an Aquino administration official said the president and his advisors had agreed on a bill and that the president had told them “to push ahead.” (See previous report.)  On Feb. 2, the Aquino administration unveiled  its own FOI bill. (See previous report.) The Coalition and congressional  FOI supporters, despite some doubts about weaker language, supported the proposed legislation. (See previous report.)  (See previous report.) Both the Senate and House bills track the Aquino bill.

Several long treatments of the delays associated with FOI have been published. One was written in 2012 by Coalition co-chairman Nepo Malaluan.(See previous report.) In May 2011, a lengthy review of the troubled recent history of the FOI legislation, written by Jaemark Tordecilla, was published by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. The PCIJ has also issued a recent report critical of access to information in the Aquino administration. (See previous report.)

Additional reports on the subject can be found using key word searches.

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