Palace to ensure “happy balance” on FOI Bill

While he failed to include the bill on the list of priority measures at the first Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council, the administration of President Benigno “NoyNoy” Aquino III is placing the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill as one of its top priorities, but wants to secure a “happy balance” between public rights’ to information and simultaneously protect confidential government data.

Presidential Undersecretary Manolo Quezon III stated in an interview Thursday morning that the President wants to address the concerns of FOI advocates, and the concerns on the secrecy of certain government documents. He, however, revealed that the settlement of the final version of the bill “is close at hand”.

Undersecretary Quezon, who is in charge of drafting the Palace’ version of the FOI Bill clarified that there are at least three more details that Malacañang is refining on the final draft of the bill, but declined to mention what are these. “We are prioritizing the consolidation of the Tañada version of the bill, and also versions of the US, UK and Australia versions,” he said as quoted on a report.

He added that the administration recognized the importance of transparency on government transactions, but pointed that it’s significant to come up with just one version of the bill that will be released. The final version shall still be presented to the President since he has some valid questions about it.

President Aquino has been noted stating early this year that he was not at ease that all “raw information” on government transactions shall be made public. He, nonetheless, acknowledged that he does not want to hide anything that’s of public importance.

“In the interim, I don’t think we have been hiding anything. We have not avoided any question that has been thrown our way. So even in the absence of any Freedom of Information Law, we have been trying to be transparent to the utmost level possible,”

“But, of course, there are times that when especially in a raw state, hindi natin pwedeng idi-discuss lest we might have apprehensions raised that are not necessary. So ang dulo noon, shortcut answer is, we’re still fine-tuning exactly how it will be, the details of this Freedom of Information Bill,” President Noynoy had explained in the same report.

FOI advocates, Lawmakers push for bill passage

Though Malacañang is yet to release an official decision on the bill, Solons on Tuesday announced that they will press for the passage of the FOI Bill in Congress after President Aquino delivers his 2nd State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday.

House Deputy Speaker Lorenzo Tañada III, who authored the lower chamber’s version of the bill known as House Bill 53, said the house committee on public information targets to pass the bill by August.

In a report on, “Whether the executive branch is ready or not, time is of the essence. It is important that before the second regular session is over, we already approved the FOI,” Cong. Tañada said on a forum in Quezon City organized by “Right to Know, Right Now”, a group advocating the passage of the FOI bill.

Meanwhile, Senator Teofisto Guingona III also expressed the Senate’s commitment to pass the bill. He said that Senate committee discussions on their own version of the FOI bill, otherwise known as Senate Bill 11, shall begin right after the SONA.

“When session resumes, we will start the committee hearing so we can terminate the hearing by the end of August or mid-September,” Sen. Guingona said in the same report.

FOI advocates likewise called for government’s action on the FOI Bill. A manifesto signed by 157 groups from media, labor, church and other sectors called for President Aquino to prioritize the FOI bill. The advocates, who launched a campaign called “Bantay FOI! Sulong FOI!”, said Freedom on Information law is needed to institutionalize transparency in government as a “mandatory norm”.

The bill’s supporters said they will closely monitor PNoy’s SONA to know if he will finally state a clear stand on the matter.

“Babantayan namin: Will President Aquino finally express his clear and unequivocal support for the passage of the FOI in his SONA on July 25,” a group said in a statement delivered by Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) executive director Malou Mangahas.

The FOI Bill has been pending in Congress for the past 11 years. During the last Congress, the House of Representatives failed to ratify the bill due to lack of quorum.

Photo by Jane Uymatiao.