FOI Bill for Philippines Emerges From Subgroup

4 September 2014

The Technical Working Group (TWG) of the Philippines House has adopted a consolidated version of a freedom of information bill (text).

The movement by the TWG Sept. 2 clears the way for passage by the Public Information Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Jorge Almonte, said its report on the “consensus FOI bill” should be ready for submission to the plenary for approval by December, according to an article in The Daily Inquirer and one in Rappler.com.

Almonte said much of the discussion by the TWG, which met nine times over almost a year, concerned the 11 exceptions to public access to information. “We agreed that these limitations are acceptable and necessary,” he was quoted as saying.

Looking ahead, Rappler wrote:

There is still a long way to go. Once the bill is approved on committee level, it will go through the period of debates and amendment, then voting on 2nd and 3rd readings, as well as bicameral committee meetings, before it can be signed into law.

Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr has vowed to pass the FOI bill under his term. While Aquino has so far refused to certify the bill as urgent, he has reiterated his support for it, and included it in the list of priority bills submitted to Congress in July.

The Senate had already passed a bill.

“Ifugao Representative Teddy Baguilat, one of the FOI bill’s authors, called the development “one step forward” to the measure’s enactment after two decades in the legislative mill,” according to a story in InterAksyon.

Rep. Ibarra Gutierrez said, “That the authors of various versions of the FOI bill were able to come together in common consensus to support a single, unified consolidated bill is proof positive of the determination in the House to see the FOI enacted into law in the soonest possible time.”

Largely Palace Version

The consensus bill apparently is close to the proposal form the Aquino administration.

“Majority of the provisions of the administration version had been incorporated in the consolidated bill. However, there are slight modifications in the exceptions and a different penal provision in the latter version,” Almonte said, according to a Sept. 3 report in The Inquirer.

The article by Marc Jayson Cayabyab said further:

Among the provisions from the Malacañang version that found their way in the consolidated one are:

            – Secret information under an executive order pertaining to national security or defense foreign affairs

            – Records of minutes and advice and opinion during decision- and policy-making deemed by the President as privileged “by reason of the impairment of the Chief Executive’s deliberative process that would result from the disclosure thereof.” (Once decisions are made the information may be disclosed unless they were made in executive session)

            – Information about internal and external defense, law enforcement and border control, the disclosure of which would interfere with military or law enforcement operation, criminal activities suppression, and the effective implementation of immigration controls and border security; would deprive a person of a right to fair trial; would lead to disclosure of identity of confidential source; would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions; would endanger life of any individual Information from orders, resolutions, decisions, memoranda or audit reports by any executive, administrative, regulatory, constitutional, judicial or quasi-judicial body in the exercise of their adjudicatory and/or audit function

            – Information is obtained by a Congress committee in executive session

            – Information pertains to personal information of persons from public and private sector, disclosure of which would mean unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. (This may include signatures, addresses, telephone numbers, identification numbers, family members, race or ethnicity, religion, health, education, sexual orientation, and similar information, unless such information is specifically required by law to be entered into an official record and made available to the public)

            – Information on trade secrets and commercial or financial information, disclosure of which would prejudice interests of those in trade, industrial, financial and commercial competition

            – Information is privileged communication in legal proceedings by law or by Rules of Court

            – Information exempted by law or Constitution

The only exemption not in the Palace bill and in a new addition is on information on currencies, interest rates, securities, commodities, or financial institutions, disclosure of which would lead to fraud, manipulation, or other unlawful acts or schemes.

The consolidated bill also lessened the penalty to a month and one day to six months imprisonment, from prison correccional in the administration version.

Almonte said the TWG deleted the provision for implementing rules and regulations “because the authors believe that the FOI manual is specific and sufficient guide for the faithful compliance and implementation of the bill.”

He also said some authors inserted Open Data provisions, which refer to the Open Data Philippines website, that seeks to enhance the public’s access to government information.

 The bill also contained a matrix of requests, its status and the decisions on the request.

Regarding the open data clause, Businessworldonline reported:

The bill also includes a section inserted by Camarines Sur Rep. Maria Leonor Gerona-Robredo (3rd district), which requires government offices to publish all files, datasets and programs to a special “Open Data Philippines” Web site as an alternative to making personal document requests.

The Facebook page of the FOI Youth Initiative said, “Indeed, this development strengthened the hopes and rekindled the fighting spirit of those who have long been advocating for a more transparent and accountable government.”

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