Philippine House Panel Not Moving on FOI Legislation

20 January 2014

Philippine House and Senate leaders continue to promise passage of freedom of information legislation, but a key House working group appointed in October to write a bill has yet to meet and the Aquino administration is continuing its hands off support.

There’s a lack of desire and commitment from the House leadership and the Committee Chair, and the executive keeps leaving it up to Congress,” said Nepomoceno Malaluan a leader of the Right to Know Right Now! coalition. The group  Jan. 20 called for the bill to be passed by the end of the second regular session of the 16th Congress in March 2015, before attention gets diverted by the 2016 elections, according to a GMA article.

Meanwhile, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism executive director Malou Mangahas said the new Open Data Philippines initiative does not reduce the need for a FOI bill.

The administration’s spokesman, Edwin Lacierda, said the open date initiative “is not a substitute to FOI,” but continued to resist making the bill a top administration priority. “The President is very circumspect in the use of his powers to declare a certain bill urgent,” he said. “The FOI bill will have to deal with the concerns of the legislative branch. Some legislators have concerns, so those concerns have to be threshed out,” according to Lacierda, quoted in The Philippines Star.

House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. on Jan. 20 told reporters, “It’s not something that will pass next week, but definitely it will pass.” He also has said, however, that a top priority is to approve his proposed resolution to amend restrictive economic provisions of the Constitution in a month.

Senate President Franklin Drilon said the bill is a priority and that senators are working on Senate Bill No. 47.

Rep. Emmeline Aglipay blamed House Public Information Committee Chair Rep. Jorge Almonte for inaction on the bill. FOI legislation has foundered in the House in two successive sessions. It has easily passed in the Senate. Almonte’s predecessor consistently delayed committee action.

“I’m quite disappointed with how the Chair has handled this. If he’s sincere in his commitment, we’ll set meetings, but that’s not happening right now,” Aglipay said in a forum sponsored by the Right to Know Right Now! coalition, according to a GMA article.  When she asked Almonte about the working group “he was very non-committal,” she said. The group was created on October. (See previous report.)

In November, Almonte said he could not meet the TWG as he was scheduled to attend the World Scout Parliamentary Union in Japan. The second week in February was the deadline for the working group to consolidate a bill from the 19 FOI bills proposed. (See previous report.)

Sen. Grace Poe, Almonte’s counterpart at the Senate, said the Senate might approve its version of the FOI bill by March. The bill has already been approved at the committee level.

Almonte Reponse

Almonte on Jan. 22 in an email to GMA News said the committee has many bills to consider. “If our act of giving time for consideration of the other bills is viewed with disfavor, then I’m sorry [that] we have a different view as to how the [committee] should perform its task,” Almonte wrote.

His comment also seemed to suggest that action by the working group is still dependent on the committee. “It is plain that the committee has yet to express ideas, sentiments and arrive at a consensus as basis for the TWG to conduct its task. I wish the CPI to proceed on matters before it consistent with Rules; I believe as Chairman I have acted in good faith,” he said.

Almonte said the committee will meet on the first week of February to discuss the FOI bill and other issues. “He did not categorically state, however, whether the committee or the TWG can meet their self-imposed deadline to have a consolidated bill by the second week of February,” GMA”s article observed.

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