Future of FOI Bill in Philippines Remains Up to Aquino

20 May 2013

By Benjamin Diokno

Diokno served as Secretary of Budget and Management from 1998 to 2001. He teaches Public Economics at the UP School of Economics. This article first appeared in the Malay Business Insight.

Is President Aquino afraid of the Freedom of information (FOI) Act? During the 2010 presidential campaign, he said he fully supported the FOI measure. Yet halfway in his presidency, the FOI bill has remained a promise. Will Mr. Aquino ever honor his promise? 

During the final days of the outgoing Congress (2010-2013), President Aquino refused to certify the FOI bill as urgent. The Philippine Senate passed the bill before Christmas of 2012. Yet, Mr. Aquino’s allies in the House of Representatives successfully managed to give the bill the Mona Lisa treatment: the House let the bill lie and die. 

The signal from the Palace then was crystal clear: not to allow the FOI bill see the light of day. Today, there appears to be no policy shift. The FOI bill’s future is uncertain.

Sunrise Predictable

With a new Congress, the FOI bill has to be reintroduced as a new piece of legislation. But the reintroduction of the FOI bill will be as sure as sunrise — in both Houses. 

The question is: will the FOI bill pass?  Its passage will be hailed as a major step toward transparency, public accountability and good governance. Its demise will be a major tragedy for Mr. Aquino’s good governance crusade. It will be seen as proof of his insincerity in his war against corruption. 

The FOI is mandated in the Philippine Constitution. It is institutionalized in most developed countries. A good government that is open, accountable and responsible should embrace, not resist, an act that would subject itself to closer public scrutiny. 

The pressure for the passage of the FOI bill will continue to increase. Advocates for good government and citizen participation will continue to ask the following question: How can the Aquino administration which is committed to good governance, transparency, control of corruption, and citizen participation be opposed to freedom of information?  Why is the FOI bill not even included in the emerging legislative agenda being prepared by Mr. Aquino’s men?

Strong Senate Support

Interestingly, all the winners in the senatorial race are unanimous in their support for the FOI bill based on their statements during the senatorial campaign. 

If the reelected and freshly elected Senate members were to vote with their conscience, there is near certainty that the FOI bill will pass. 

The old, returning members –Loren Legarda, Francis Escudero, Alan Cayetano, Koko Pimentel, Antonio Trillanes, and  Gregorio Honasan — voted for the FOI bill in the 15th Congress.  During the campaign period, they reaffirmed their support for the bill.

Legarda was one of the authors of the FOI bill. “Transparency is an indispensable feature of our drive against corruption,” said Legarda.

Escudero favored the FOI bill. He said: “Transparency is a key factor in our fight against corruption.” 

In his support for the FOI bill, Cayetano argued: “transparency and accountability should be institutionalized. They can’t depend on the leader or the leadership.” 

Pimentel was more emphatic in his support for the FOI bill. He said: “We need the law to comply with the Constitution and not make on our right to information in matters of public concern an illusory one.”

Trillanes supported the FOI in the 15th Congress. He said: “it promotes transparency in government which is essential to any anti-corruption drive.”

Honasan lamented the FOI’s lack of support from the House in the outgoing Congress. He promised, if reelected, “ to push for it at every opportunity.”

The three senatorial ‘rookies’– Grace Poe, Nancy Binay and Bam Aquino — promised to support the FOI bill subject to some qualifications. Poe does not agree with the right of reply provision. She said “it borders on dictating how the media should do its job.”  Both Binay and Aquino expressed concern that national security matters should not be compromised in giving people access to information. 

The three former members of the House of Representatives — Sonny Angara, Cynthia Villar, and JV Ejercito Estrada — promised to support the FOI bill. Angara said: “It would greatly advance good governance in the country and foster democratic participation of our citizens.” Villar supports the bill “ so there will transparency in government transactions. 

Finally, Estrada lamented Mr. Aquino’s failure to certify the bill as urgent in the 15th Congress. 

House Watches Aquino

It is with near certainty that the Senate would reintroduce, and approve, the freedom of information bill. But what about the House? I think if the members of the House were allowed to vote with their conscience, it would pass the Lower House too. 

But the political reality is that President Aquino’s allies in the House will look at Malacañang for clear marching orders. If the President says go, the FOI bill will be done; if he says ‘freeze the ball,’ it will be stalled until the appropriate time comes; and if he says kill, it will be dead.

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