Stage Set for Consideration of Philippines FOI Bill

5 August 2013

A few new actors have been given lead roles in the long-running saga in the Philippines over whether a freedom of information bill can pass Congress.

Rep. Jorge Almonte will chair the committee on public information, which last year delayed action on the bill under the chairmanship of Rep. Ben Evardone.

FOI supporters had pushed for Rep. Emmeline Aglipay to lead the committee, but had little expectation she, a junior House member, would be selected by the House leadership.

In the Senate, Sen. Grace Poe-Llamanzares will handle the bill as chair of the committee on public information. The FOI was easily approved in the Senate in the 14th and 15th congresses.

It stalled in the House committee in 2012, which approved it very late in the session. House passage was feasible, supporters thought, but it never got a push from President Benigno Aquino. Despite his public support for FOI, the president has been cast by supporters as the behind-the-scenes director of a play that has yet to conclude with a pro-FOI ending. Similar concerns were voiced when the bill failed in the House in the closing says of the 14th Congress.

In July, a “people’s version” of the bill was filed at the House of Representatives by the Right to Know. Right Now! Coalition.

Recently the House of Representatives’ research body issued comments, commenting that implementation would be challenging and offering suggestions.

In a policy brief, the Congressional Policy and Budget Research Department (CPBRD) suggested manpower and procedural adjustments in every government agency to deal with public requests for records, among other things. It draws examples from laws around the world, according to an Inquirer article.

Minority Leader Ronaldo Zamora recently was quoted as doubting that the House leadership supports FOI. “I’m not sure that the majority is prepared to come up with a clear statement on whether they want the FOI or not,” said Zamora, commenting on delays in filling the committee position. Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II rejected the characterization. The appointment of the chairmanship came two weeks after the House reconvened and after other posts were filed.

One media report, in Sun Star, and another in The Inquirer, said members from the Liberal Party were wary of taking the chairmanship.

The new chair of the relevant Senate committee, Grace Poe, was quoted as saying, “I really want to conduct hearings on this [bill].  This is the backbone of public information.”

She expressed concern about getting Aquino’s support, saying, “… there is no denying that it is not their priority measure and they have some reservations, and they filed their own version.”

“We really also have to take into consideration what the President thinks about it. There are other points to ponder here,” Poe said. “Obviously, it’s not their passion but they’re also not doing anything to kill the bill.”

Poe indicated it was important that an FOI measure be put in place to institutionalize access to government information before the Aquino administration bows out in 2016.

“But it’s up to them to see if this is really something that they need to prioritize. What I think is that it is a safety (mechanism) for us, especially that in 2016, we will have a new administration.  It’s better that we are able to have a guarantee that we have access to information,” Poe said.

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