Worries About Aquino Still Worry FOI Bill Supporters

29 July 2015

Philippines President Benigno Aquino for the sixth straight year failed to mention freedom of information legislation in his State of the Nation Address.

He did note it in his budget speech the next day, but those following the bill remain concerned about its future. Although Aquino made passage a campaign promise, he has not provided needed political support to get it through Congress in the eyes of many observers.

The Senate passed a bill easily, but the House bill approved by a committee nearly nine months ago has to be scheduled for second reading.

One inside observer, Walden Bello, a former congressman and sponsor of FOI legislation, worried in a July 27 newspaper column, “It’s getting really, really late.”

“The problem,” he wrote, however, isn’t House Speaker Sonny Belmonte, who has pledged to pass a bill by the ned of this congressional session. “As everyone in the House knows, Belmonte is a pliant ally of the president, and whatever may be his public statements, if Malacanang does not want a bill, it won’t go through,” Walden reasoned. “Thus, Aquino’s silence on FOI last Monday spoke volumes to Belmonte and other members of Congress.”

Looking ahead, Walden summarized:

There are already a number of controversial bills competing for passage in August, the main ones being the Bangsa Moro Basic Law, the Anti-Dynasty Bill, and the Speaker’s pet project, the Charter Change Resolution to eventually do away with the nationalist provisions of the 1987 Constitution. September to early November will be devoted almost exclusively to the budgetary appropriations process, leaving the extremely short period from mid-November to the mid-December for priority legislation.  After that the House disbands for the elections.

Asking “What has prevented people like Belmonte and Aquino from following through on their promises to pass FOI?,” Walden answered:

I think their strong hesitation stems from the generalized fear of many politicians that the legislated transparency of FOI may work against them in some undefined way at some point. In the case of the House leadership, it is probably a case of generalized fear. In the case of President Aquino, however, it is probably more than generalized fear. It probably stems from his desire to prevent access to documents and other material that may give him an image different from that he wants to leave behind, if not make him and some of his subordinates vulnerable to criminal and civil charges for felonious deeds committed while in office.

Mention Made in Budget Speech

In his 2016 budget message the next day, Aquino described his efforts to combat corruption, saying his administration had “dramatically improved our standing in global benchmarks of budget transparency.” He urged Congress to pass the FOI bill “to ensure the permanency of transparency policies, reported Camille Elemia in Rappler, along with “what is more important is concrete action.” comments from his press secretary.

The Philippines Center for Investigative Journalism has assembled a video of Aquino’s statements on FOI.

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