Lack of Aquino Support Seen Dooming Philippines FOI Bill

31 January 2013

Time appears to be running out for freedom of information legislation in the Philippines in the absence of support from President Benigno Aquino and with only three days left in this session of Congress.

Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda on Jan. 31 said, “Our position is let’s have a debate, a healthy debate on this issue and we’ll take it from there.”

Lacierda was responding to reporters following public appeals from the Catholic Bishops Conference and others to actively support the bill by declaring its passage an urgent priority, according to a report on ABS-CBN News.

Members of the House quoted sources within the administration as saying the president does not want the bill passed.

Lacierda’s comments came after a week in which the House started the debate on the bill with three speeches from the bill’s sponsors, but never returned to it. The session is due to end Feb. 6 after three more days in session beginning Feb. 3.

In recent weeks and days the bill’s supporters have called for help from Aquino. His “certification” of the bill as urgent would compress the procedures necessary for its passage.

Nepo Malaluan, a leader of the Right to Know. Right Now! Coalition, told FreedomInfo.org:

With President Aquino refusing to exercise his Consttutional preogative to certify to the necessity of the FOI Bill’s immediate enactment, its passage is now an impossibility. With only three session days to go, it cannot anymore reach a vote on Third Reading. 

The greater tragedy, however, is that the FOI Bill did not die in the 15th Congress for lack of time; it was killed by lack of political commitment from President Aquino, the Speaker of the House and his Majority Leader, as well as the Committee Chairman. All three are key allies and partymates of the President. 

The Presidential spokesperson’s statement that they want a “healthy debate” is an insult, knowing full well that the House leadership had used every parliamentary trick in the books to prevent any debate from happening. This started at the Committee level, with the chairman refusing to hold committee hearings, using even an incredible excuse of lack of room. They timed its reaching plenary such that it will be extremely difficult to get a debate through its full course, and with the last six session days did not even allow such debates by refusing to open the period of interpellations.

History of Delay

Aquino made passage of a FOI bill a campaign promise three years ago, but took more than a year to draft a bill, essentially the bill now before the House. That bill was reluctantly accepted as a compromise by the coalition supporting FOI. It was passed in the Senate in June, but languished in a House committee chaired by Rep. Ben Evardone, an avowed supporter who “dribbled” the bill, in the words of its advocates. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report on delays.)

After finally being overwhelming approved by the committee, and apparently with enough support to pass in the House, the bill never was made a priority by House leaders. Many supporters fault Aquino for lukewarm support of the bill for the past several years.

“It is ironic that the government that prides itself of treading the Daang Matuwid (straight path) fears the FOI because of possible discovery of wrongdoing by public officials. Why are they afraid to entrust the citizens with the truth of their governance?” the bishops said in a statement.

Members Say Malacañang Opposes Passage

Several House members have said the inside word was that the administration did not want to see the bill passed.

Rep. Rodolfo Albano, a member of the minority bloc, told reporters, “I heard that the Malacañang is not for it,” according to The Inquirer.

Albano was quoted by The Manila Standard as saying that the president “does not like the FOI bill.” Albano told reporters, “That’s what I gathered from Palace sources.”

House Minority Leader Danilo Suarez said, “If they want the FOI they can just ram it through our throat.” Suarez told reporters in a news conference, “But obviously, the Palace itself is not interested in passing the bill,” according to a report in The Manila Standard.

Rep. Sherwin Tugna Jan. 29 was quoted as saying that “FOI is not supported by Malacañang” [the Philippine term for the presidency], according to a report in The Inquirer.

FOI bill co-author Rep. Walden Bello said, “I don’t really know what Malacañang priorities are at this point. In fact, I am not sure if the House leadership wants this bill to get through.”

In a speech Jan. 30, Rep. Teodoro Casiño said, “Malacañang has been stalling the passage of an FOI bill, even the severely watered down version at that,” according to an Inquirer article.

“President Aquino’s FOI version is so limited that transparency and accountability are restricted, illustrated by the many exemptions that cover corrupt practices, human rights violations and policy making,” he was quoted as saying.

Inquirer reporter Karen Boncocon wrote that “a source from the House, who asked not to be identified,” said a minority group in the House was being used “to stop the bill from moving forward.”

During the week of Jan. 27, three sponsorship speeches were delivered: by Deputy Speaker Lorenzo Tañada and Evardone on Jan. 27 and Rep. Teddy Baguilat on Jan. 29. Baguilat urged fellow House members to “heed the demands of the people we represent, let us pass the FOI Bill.”

The Inquirer summarized, “The bill was not tackled on Tuesday and its authors suspected that this was due to the lack of quorum and the leadership’s fear that question of quorum would be raised.” The House minority was resisting movement on the bill with procedural moves, Boncocon reported.

Evardone Gives Bill “Little Chance”

On Jan. 30, The Inquirer said in another article that Evardone, the chairman of the House committee on public information said the bill (House Bill 6766) had “very little chance.”

Evardone said suspicions of opposition from Malacañang were “unfounded.”

“Malacañang cooperated with the committee in the crafting of the bill. There was no word that reached me that Malacañang is against it,” he said.

Carlo Brolagda, convenor of the FOI Youth Initiative, said, “It was ‘Doctor’ Evardone who declared that the FOI Bill was ‘dead’ due to lack of time and quorum in the House of Representatives. However, it is clear that the main cause was ‘legislative malpractice’ on his part.”

Brolagda continued, “He made us wait until the final months before the start of the 2013 elections, and made so many excuses like the absence of a Liberal Party position on the bill to the unavailability of a room to house the meeting,” he said.

Tañada Regrets White Flag

Reacting to Evardone’s comments, Deputy Speaker Tañada said, “hindi pa naman (Not yet). I heard Ben is waiving the white flag. I guess it is his nature,” according to The Inquirer. The article continued:

“The records of the committee and the history of FOI will judge him. I hope he delegates his authority to me or to Representative (Teddy) Baguilat or Representative (Walden) Bello so we can debate the FOI on the floor with anyone who is interested to debate with the sponsors,” he said.

Tañada added that he would rather “try to push for the FOI as far as I and the sponsors can and let it be known that it was again the House members, including the minority, who killed FOI due to lack of quorum.”

“If Representative Ben (Evardone) refuses to delegate his authority, then it becomes quite obvious to everyone that he also doesn’t want FOI to be debated on the floor,” Tañada also said.

In a television interview Jan. 31, Tañada said Aquino “is watching how the process will go. If we can get the bill to a second-reading vote, I think he will act appropriately,” according to an article in The Star.

 “Even if we have only four session days to go before we adjourn next week for the elections in May, we can still do it because we have more sessions in June when we reconvene,” he added.

Congress will go on a long four-month break for the election campaign next weekend and will convene for four days starting June 3 before adjourning again.

Minority Opposition

Authors of the bill also have pointed to the minority bloc as having prevented them from proceeding with delivering sponsorship speeches.

Only Evardone, Tañada and Baguilat have delivered their sponsorship speeches.

Bello said he sought to reclassify his privilege speech on Monday as his sponsorship speech but this was opposed by House Minority Leader Suarez.

A fourth sponsorship speech, by Tugna, was inserted into the House record after the opposition reportedly blocked its delivery on the floor. Tugna, a co-author of the bill, said it was frustrating that the lack of quorum was impeding majority control of the House.

Philippines Slides in Another Indexes

The Philippines came in 147th place among 179 countries included in the 2013 World Press Freedom Index just released by the France-based Reporters Without Borders, down from 140th place in the previous year’s report.

Separately, government officials weighed in with objections following criticisms of government budget transparency made in a blog post by the Philippines Center for Investigative Reporting. The subject of the posting was a slide in the rating of the Philippines in the latest report from the International Budget Project.

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