Thursday, September 11, 2014

Mabuhay, FOI champions in Congress

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

Are political parties taking a collective stand on the freedom of information (FOI) bill that was killed at the last hour in the 15th Congress?

The hopeful news is that last Tuesday, the technical working group (TWG) of the House of Representatives committee on public information approved without objection a consolidated version of more than a dozen FOI bills. FOI advocates are hoping that this is a harbinger of good things to come—that is, the early passage of the bill in the 16th Congress.

The Right to Know, Right Now Coalition (R2KRN) considers this “a major positive development that punctuates months of active engagement and constant monitoring of the TWG process.”

R2KRN reports: “Departing from the paragraph-by-paragraph deliberation in the earlier TWG meetings, the meeting on Tuesday approved all remaining provisions, from Section 7 (f) through Section 33, as well as the Title and Short Title of the measure. This was made possible by consultations among authors and groups with the objective of reconciling provisions and forging consensus to assist and speed up the formal TWG.”

There was a blending of forces, R2KRN happily notes. Those who worked for the FOI bill’s almost uninterrupted move deserve mention and praise. They are midwives assisting in the birth of a groundbreaking law that can make a positive impact on the life of this nation. R2KRN believes that if passed in its latest consolidated form, the FOI bill will mean substantial gains for all citizens, and a definite advance of their right to information.

Here are the persons that R2KRN regards as FOI champions:

• Representatives Teddy Baguilat Jr. (Ifugao), Kaka Bag-ao (Dinagat), Ibarra Gutierrez III and Walden Bello (Akbayan), Emmeline Aglipay (Diwa), Winston Castelo (Quezon City, 2nd district), Gus Tambunting (Parañaque City, 2nd district), Leah Paquiz (Ang Nars), Jose Christopher Belmonte (Quezon City, 6th district), Anthony Bravo and Cresente Paez (Coop Natcco), Roman Romulo (Pasig City), and Sherwin Tugna and Cinchona Cruz-Gonzales (Cibac).

• The authors and key reform partners of Malacañang at the House—Rep. Leni Robredo (Camarines Sur, 3rd district) and Deputy Speaker Henedina Abad (Batanes).

• Rep. Jorge Almonte, chair of the House committee on public information, constantly assisted by his legislative staff Norman Pelinio and Karissa Jumaquio, and the committee secretariat headed by Romualdo Sta. Clara.

• Other authors who reconciled their versions through amendments, such as Representatives Magnolia Rosa Antonino-Nadres (Nueva Ecija, 4th district) and Xavier Jesus Romualdo (Camiguin).

• Malacañang’s representative to the TWG—Undersecretary Manuel L. Quezon III, working in coordination with Secretary Edwin Lacierda.

• Members present at the TWG meeting, including Representatives Gwendolyn Garcia (Cebu, 3rd district), Raul Del Mar (Cebu City, 1st district), and Sol Aragones (Laguna, 3rd district), and the other TWG members that have actively participated in the full deliberation of the exceptions in the previous meetings.

• R2KRN, itself an author of the bill through indirect initiative.

The consolidated bill is the result of the cumulative and collective efforts of civil society groups, the executive and legislative branches, and other stakeholders. R2KRN explains that the main foundation of the FOI bill is the bicameral version of the 14th Congress which, at that time, already represented a high level of consensus.

R2KRN notes that added to the bicameral version are the Malacañang amendments, principally the insertion of the phrase “national security” in exception 1, the new exception 2 relating to the presidential communications privilege (popularly referred to as “executive privilege”), the expansion of the list of documents for mandatory disclosure, and the new provisions on open data.

“To balance for concerns over potential abuse of exceptions, the advocates pushed for additional safeguards. In addition to the legal presumption in favor of access, the following additional safeguards were integrated: that the exceptions shall be strictly construed; that exceptions cannot be invoked to cover up a crime, wrongdoing, graft, or corruption; and the possible waiver of exception within a branch of government when they deem that there is a compelling or overriding public interest in disclosure.”

R2KRN adds that it is still a long way to go for the FOI bill’s final enactment, which depends on several factors: the sustained and intensified people’s campaign; the commitment of an expanding core of FOI champions in Congress; the sustained effort by the committee chair to shepherd the FOI bill through the committee process; the political push at the highest level of leadership, specifically, by President Aquino, Speaker Sonny Belmonte, and Senate President Frank Drilon; and prompt action on the bill to avoid the known complications of delay.

In short, all political parties should now take a stand. R2KRN says: “It is but fair to know not just where individual members of Congress stand. The political parties—Liberal Party, Nationalist People’s Coalition, National Unity Party, Nacionalista Party, Lakas, and United Nationalist Alliance, as well as the 54 party-list groups—must make known whether they will vote to pass the FOI Act.”

Time for the fence-sitters in the 15th Congress to be counted as midwives.#