Thursday, June 3, 2010

D-Day for FOIA

Friday is D-Day for the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Will it be passed in the House of Representatives on the last session day? Just one more nudge, isang pindot na lang, and if it gets passed (as it had been in the Senate) we will become more enabled and empowered citizens of this nation. What a great day it would be.

What previously have been kept in the dark can now be brought easily into the light. Many things that have been hidden can be easily laid bare. Without fear and trepidation, the Juans and Juanas of this country, journalists among them, can demand easy access to information. It will also be time for those perennially hiding their shady deeds to give up old practices and start living honorable lives. (As if giving up an addiction would be that easy.)

We can also stand tall and proudly tell some of our Asian neighbors that like them, we have this empowering law.
What is FOIA if not simply the hows of our right to information as enshrined in the Constitution? This right is already etched in stone, we just need the mechanics on how to exercise that right and yet…
 As they say, while it has been easy for us to speak and speak out loud, it has not been easy for us to know. Indeed it has not been easy for the FOIA to get to where it is. One day before D-Day and the FOIA is still precariously perched on the edge of a cliff.

All the multi-media and civil society efforts by way of editorials, live discussions, talk shows and forums have resulted in people’s heightened awareness of its importance. But Congress has chosen to procrastinate till the last day or the end of time, so to speak. If the FOIA falls down the cliff on Friday, it will have to again start from the bottom in the next Congress. All the efforts to get it to where it is now will be for naught. It will be back to the salt mines for us.

“All it needs tomorrow is two minutes,” says Malou Mangahas, executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and one of the movers of Right to Know Right Now! Coalition. Two minutes or longer is not too much to ask for this added pillar for our democracy. The ongoing canvassing of presidential and vice-presidential votes should not be a reason to ignore the FOIA.

There are some worrisome developments. Here is an update from Malou:
“Speaker Prospero Nograles spurned us the second time yesterday (May 31). Our reporters and representatives all saw what happened. Rep. Benny Abante and the other authors of the bill were ready to move for its ratification. They were virtually gagged—the microphones on the floor were turned off.

“Nograles promises again that on Friday the FOI Act would be on the agenda of the House. He might fall again on his words, a third time. Yet still, thanks to everyone, all our efforts are not lost.

“On May 24, the Speaker declared it to be dead in the 14th Congress. Yesterday, he yielded a lot more ground; he was compelled to promise that its ratification will be taken up on June 4, Friday, supposedly the last session day of Congress. Too, the people are now more aware of the values to democracy this measure offers. If the Speaker reneges again on his promise, he would have been so shamed and has only himself to blame.

“On Friday, we might still have a last stand, a la Masada of sorts, for the Freedom of Information Act. The 130 organizations in the Right to Know Right Now! Coalition plan to send as many people as they could to the gallery to watch, maybe the death, or we wish, the resurrection of the FOI Act. May I please personally appeal to everyone’s patience and relentless support. You have all served as the wind beneath the wings of the effort to ratify the FOI Act.”

The Right to Know Right Now! Coalition lined up some activities to prepare for the House session on June 4, Friday. On Wednesday Rep. Benny Abante called for a caucus of the FOI lawmakers and the Right to Know Right Now! advocates.

On Friday, June 4, FOI advocates will assemble starting 12 noon, at the House to attend the session. Right to Know Right Now! Coalition’s call: “Let us try to fill up the gallery. Let us wear black—to evoke authority and power, symbolize potential and possibility.”
Another worrisome scenario is someone in Congress declaring a lack of quorum. Quorum is not always invoked but someone might just make it a convenient reason to kill the FOIA. And what if, in fact, there is a quorum?

The Indian example. In 2000, Indian social worker Aruna Roy won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership because of her work “(to empower) Indian villagers to claim what is rightfully theirs by upholding and exercising the people’s right to information.” A former civil servant, she founded Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghathan (Organization for the Empowerment of Workers and Peasants).

I listened to her 2000 lecture and kept the monograph “Information, Democracy and Ethics” where she wrote: “Despite the astonishment repeatedly aired by outside observers, it has not surprised us that the radical postulates of the Right to Information movement in Rajasthan have been formulated and worked out by a group of poor, largely illiterate rural Rajasthani workers. It is they who have, for the first time, defined the right to information not only as part of the freedom of expression but also as part of the right to livelihood and survival.”

Roy was here last month to speak on the Right to Information. Be inspired. You can read more about Roy in “Great Men and Women of Asia” published by the RM Award Foundation. We need idols like her.#

The right to know
Philippine Daily Inquirer Research
The Freedom of Information Act seeks to promote the people’s right to know by laying down specific procedures in obtaining official documents from public agencies.
On May 12, 2008, House Bill No. 3732 (An Act implementing the Right of Access to information on matters of public concern guaranteed under Section VII, Article III of the 1987 Constitution and for other purposes), with Manila Rep. Bienvenido Abante Jr. and Quezon Rep. Lorenzo Tañada III as principal sponsors, was passed.

On Dec. 14, 2009, Senate Bill No. 3308 (Freedom of Information Act), authored principally by Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, was approved.

In January, the act was approved by a bicameral panel composed of eight House members (Representatives Abante, Tañada, Eduardo Zialcita of Parañaque, Rodolfo Antonino of Nueva Ecija, Emmanuel Joel Villanueva and Cinchona Cruz Gonzales of the party-list group Cibac, Jesus Crispin Remulla of Cavite, and Rodante Marcoleta of Alagad) and their Senate counterparts (Senators Juan Miguel Zubiri and Alan Peter and Pia Cayetano).

If signed into law, the proposed act will make available to the people all public records in print, sound or visual form.

It mandates government agencies to make available to the public “scrutiny, copying and reproduction, all information pertaining to official acts, transactions as well as government research data used as basis for policy development regardless of the physical form or format in which they are contained and by whom they were made.”

If the government agency decides to deny a request for information, wholly or partly, it shall within seven days from the receipt of the request state the denial in writing or through electronic means.

Denial of access to information shall be appealable to the agency concerned 15 days from the notice of denial, but the Office of the Ombudsman may be asked to resolve the appeal in 60 days.

There are exceptions to what can be readily disclosed to the public, such as matters pertaining to national and internal defense, foreign affairs (but only if revealing the data would jeopardize the government’s position in negotiations or diplomatic relations), commercial secrets, personal information that would lead to unwarranted invasion of privacy, and information obtained in executive sessions of the legislature.