Philippines FOI Bill Faces Delays as Session Wanes

22 January 2013

A procedural move on an unrelated matter has delayed action by the Philippines House on a freedom of information bill with only seven session days to go.

The unexpected delay with little time to spare was one of several plot twists in recent days for the imperiled bill which continues to get barely token support from the  Aquino administration.  

Aquino has snubbed requests, recently by the Catholic Bishops, to “certify” the bill as an urgent matter, which would help it clear procedural hurdles.

To begin the week, House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. did not include the FOI bill on the agenda for Jan. 22. He promised it would be on the agenda for the next day.

Then, on Jan. 22, the possibility of a vote was derailed by a surprise quorum call by a congressman, a FOI bill supporter, who was seeking to block the creation of a new province. With not enough members present for  quorum (144 of 287 is a quorum), the day’s session was adjourned.

The scene was described in a blog post by the Philippines Center for Journalism: “When the session was suspended without any explanations given by the majority, about a hundred members of the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition rose from their seats in the gallery and altogether made the thumbs-down sign for all the lawmakers to see. In silence for about five minutes, the Coalition members stood at the gallery flashing the thumbs-down sign at the lawmakers.

The difficulty of getting enough members to the floor toward the end of the session was what prevented passage of a FOI bill in 2010 and is a bitter memory for the bill’s advocates.

Efforts to persuade Rep. Marc Douglas Cagas IV to drop his quorum call were unsuccessful and he was quoted as saying he would continue it on Jan. 23.  The 15th Congress is scheduled to adjourn on Feb. 8 for the May 2013 elections.

An article in The Inquirer said that Deputy Speaker Lorenzo Tanada III, a main proponent of the House bill, had heard the reason the FOI bill wasn’t put on the Monday agenda was because the chairman of the Committee on Public Information, Rep. Ben Evardone, was out of the country and did not want to delegate the submission of the committee report to his vice chairmen.

Evardone and others are due to make sponsorship speeches for the bill if and when it finally comes up in the plenary. Evardone postponed committee action on the bill for much of 2012, and even after committee passage caused other delays in getting the bill ready for final House action.

Progressives Drop Support for the Bill

In another development, a small group of lawmakers who have been the strong supporters of  FOI legislation announced that they consider the pending House bill too weak.

The bill still would have enough support to pass the House, others wer quoted as saying.

Rep.  Teddy Casino withdrew his co-authorship of the bill Jan. 21 and six other members also withdrew their support. They said the bill has too many “restrictive” exceptions and would seek to amend it, but also indicated they would still vote for it.

The last few weeks there have been many statements of support for the bill. Among other things, Bishop Broderick Pabillo, the chairman of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines National Secretariat for Social Action, warned candidates in Aquino’s Liberal Party-led coalition might lose their credibility if the FOI bill does not pass.

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