One Year After the Elections: Where’s the FOI?

Indeed, a year has passed since the elections and Freedom of Information Bill is still hanging. Malou Mangahas sent me an email about the the FOI Bill. I wrote about President Aquino’s indecisive leadership and tried to refresh his memory on his promises.

Malou Mangahas is once again renewing efforts to have the FOI bill passed. This is what she emailed editors.

“At about this time last year, we wrote you on behalf of the 160 organizations that comprise the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition to request your urgent and vigorous support for our 15-year joint effort to have the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act passed into law.

We write again to solicit your cooperation and participation to restart and recharge this campaign. After all, on June 6, 2010, then President-Elect Benigno Simeon Aquino III had explicitly sworn that he and his administration would champion and assure its passage.

By all indications, however, we are likely to meet with disappointment, unless we act all together once more to remind the Aquino administration that it must deliver on its promise.

Three letters, no results

Over the last 12 months, the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition has taken the path of principled cooperation with the Aquino government on the FOI Act.

Since Mr. Aquino was elected president, the Coalition has already moved three letters of appeal to him and his Cabinet members so they may publicly support, endorse, and help assure the passage of the FOI Act. Three times already, too, we have failed to receive any substantial positive feedback from the government on our appeal.

On May 26, 2010 or just two weeks after elections, the Coalition in a letter asked then presumptive President Aquino to lend a decisive voice to convince the leaders of the 14th Congress to immediately act on the bicameral conference committee report on the FOI bill. He did not speak out.

The members of the House of Representatives said they could not vote on the bill on their last session day because there was no quorum, even as we actually documented the contrary.

Suffice it to say that while the House of the 14th Congress mocked and cheated us, we comforted ourselves with the thought that no less than President Aquino himself had guaranteed that he would stand foursquare behind the FOI Act.

On June 16, 2010, asked by reporters whether he would assign priority to the FOI Act once he becomes President, he replied: “Yes. Iba pa rin ‘yung may force of law (It would be better if there is the force of law). That would be, I think, the more complete route.”

This statement inspired the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition to write him a second letter on July 20, 2010, this time to appeal for the inclusion of the FOI bill among the legislative measures on his priority list for the debut state-of-the-nation address that he was to deliver to the 15th Congress days later. Not a word or whimper was heard from him about the FOI Act.

Finally on February 2, 2011, the Coalition wrote Mr. Aquino a third time to exhort him to enroll the passage of the Freedom of Information Act in his Priority Measures for consideration by Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council or LEDAC. Yet again, that did not happen.

Three times the Coalition has filed its appeal in letters, and several other times, in meetings with the Cabinet members and leaders of the President’s Liberal Party-led majority coalition in the House of Representatives. In all those times, our appeals seem to have fallen on deaf ears. We have yet to receive any manner or form of what could be considered a favorable response from the Aquino administration about the FOI bill.

Idle in Congress committees

Needless to say, we must take to task the lawmakers who could and should have acted on their own on the FOI bill, despite or even in spite of the absence of any official statements from Malacañang on the matter.

To be sure, in the 15th Congress, separate FOI bills have been filed but to this day they remain pending in the respective committees on Public Information of the Senate (chaired by Sen. Gregorio Honasan) and in the House of Representatives (chaired by Samar Rep. Ben Evardone).

The House committee has conducted public hearings and convened a Technical Working Group on the FOI bill, in which the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition has been asked to assist. The committee is supposed to hold one more public hearing before it is reportedly scheduled to submit the FOI bill to the House plenary. These events happened between November 2010 and early February 2011 but no further developments have happened since.

The Senate committee, for its part, has conducted one public hearing on the FOI bill even ahead of the House. However, this was by far the only action that has happened in the Senate concerning the FOI bill.

On parallel track, the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition has also conducted dialogues with the secretaries of the Communication Group of the President. A 10-person delegation of the Coalition discussed the FOI bill at length at one such meeting in February 2011 with Secretaries Ricky Carandang and Sonny Coloma, and Undersecretary Manolo Quezon III.

Executive ‘concerns’

During that meeting, the secretaries assured the Coalition that they would endorse the FOI bill for inclusion in the list of priority bills that the President was to submit to Congress. At the same time, they voiced certain “concerns” about the FOI bill that certain unnamed Cabinet members have reportedly raised, including

  • Balancing the public’s right to know with the need to protect documents that are covered by the “deliberative process” of policy-making and governance;
  • “Privacy” issues affecting public officials;
  • The administrative burden on civil servants that the FOI bill may impose;
  • What mechanisms or agencies would assess reasons for denial of requests; and
  • The penalties and fines that the proposed law may impose on public officials who will deny requests for access to documents
  • .

All these “concerns” have reportedly been referred to an “inter-agency committee” that Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda said Malacañang has convened so these could be discussed with the appropriate executive departments and committees on public information of Congress.

To this day, however, whether or not that committee has been formally convened, what mandate it has secured, and within what timetable it must finish its work are details that have not been disclosed by Malacañang.

Locked in inertia

Given these developments, two things seem apparent. One, the FOI bill seems to be locked in inertia and drift under the Aquino administration. Two, the lack progress in the legislative work and the deafening silence on the FOI bill on the part of both Congress and the executive branch are happening after the Liberal Party of President Aquino has taken over as the administration party and the ruling coalition in Congress.

Curiously, the LP-led majority coalition in the 15th Congress could not make the FOI bill move with as much energy and resolve as they had demonstrated for it in the 14th Congress. And that was when they were fewer in numbers and less powerful as members of the opposition minority.

The biggest irony of all is that this is happening under an administration that has sworn to promote transparency, accountability and good governance, the avowed bedrock principles of its “Social Contract with the Filipino People.”

Today, the FOI bill has been consigned to a state of limbo. It has achieved no progress or breakthrough in the last 12 months. Most tragic of all, it has become an orphaned cause, a bill without fathers, mothers and friends, or strong advocates and champions, in the Aquino administration. And if it has any true supporters at all, they have yet to come out.

The first regular session of the 15th Congress will close on June 9, 2011, and very soon, the jockeying for positions for the 2013 elections will be upon us. Yet still, the FOI bill remains stalled in the respective committees on public information of the Senate and House of Representatives.

We believe that a key reason for the lack of progress on the FOI bill in both chambers is the perceived lack of decisive support for it from the Executive branch, and in particular, from the President.

FOI Forum, May 2, Monday

On Monday, May 2, eve of World Press Freedom Day, the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition will file a fourth letter to President Aquino and hold a press forum to signal its renewed effort to campaign for the FOI Act.

This forum dubbed “One Year After the Elections: Where’s the FOI?”, will be held from 9 am to 12 noon at Dulcinea Restaurant on Tomas Morato Avenue in Quezon City.

An all-media working lunch session with reporters, editors, news managers, columnists and anchors from print, broadcast and online media will follow at the same venue.

The situation seems so uncertain for a piece of legislation so important to press freedom and good governance, it seems like we must all help as journalists and citizens to make sure the FOI bill is enacted into law very soon.

It seems like we must all act now and add our voices, goodwill, time and effort to make another vigorous push for the FOI bill..”

Tomorrow, there will be a solid plan of action. We will sit down and discuss how we can do, separately or together but simultaneously, various appropriate activities to convince the 15th Congress and the President to enact the FOI Bill.