The urgency of having an FOI law and the Right of Reply

As part of his campaign promises, President Aquino had promised to make the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) an administration priority. A year and a half into his administration, he approves the Malacanang version of the FOI. But…with focus partly diverted to the Corona trial, it seems that there are no clear indicators in the House that the passing of the FOI bill will happen before the end of the 15th Congress.

Why the urgency?

There are three regular sessions in every Congress (this is the 15th Congress). With the resumption of Congress last May 7, there are just four (4) weeks remaining in the second regular session? And the bill is still with the Committee on Public Information in the House. Many are doubtful if it can make it through the second regular session.

Some people say that there is still the third regular session. However, observers say that the third regular session of Congress is the one that is least attended and the one most taken for granted because it is the closest to the next scheduled election and many of those in Congress, especially those planning to run for reelection, may be spending more time in their own provinces and as a result, the FOI bill may not be passed in time.

If this is not passed in the 15th Congress, all efforts to finally have an FOI in place would go down the drain and we will find ourselves at square one again.

Why isn’t the FOI Bill moving fast enough?

It’s anybody’s guess. The Corona trial has obviously slowed down other activities at Congress so it could have a bearing on why the FOI bill has not really moved along.

But in a recent forum in celebration of World Freedom Day, Ed Lingao of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) spoke also of a move that two Congressmen have made, which Lingao termed “a political quid pro quo of sorts” for passing the FOI bill – the Right of Reply provision (referred to here as ROR).

What is the ROR all about?

Wikipedia defines ROR this way: “The right of reply is the right to defend oneself against public criticism in the same venue where it was published.”

In effect, it means that a person who feels he is aggrieved by a news report (in print, on the air, or even online) should be given a chance to reply in the same venue. Not only does he have the right to reply but his reply should be given equal print space, air time or online space. Lingao puts it this way, “In sum, it says this…If we are attacked, we have the right to reply – on your time, and your space.”

Brazil is one of those rare cases where ROR is recognized. In fact, it is enshrined in their very constitution (Art. 5. V)! There are also moves in Europe to pass laws legislating ROR but none have been enacted to date.

ROR, Philippine Style

Two legislators are pushing for the ROR provision but are approaching it from two different angles:

1. Nueva Ecija Representative Rodolfo Antonino proposes that the ROR be included as part of the FOI bill. Antonino gave this statement after the House Committee on Public Information adopted Malacanang’s version of the FOI bill. The effect of embedding the ROR in the FOI bill serves to make it mandatory. Antonino, according to Lingao, “vowed to fight for the provision of the ROR in order to prevent what he called the media abuse of the right to information once FOI is passed”.

2. On the other hand, Camiguin Representative Pedro Romualdo is pushing for House Bill 117 (An Act Granting the Right of Reply and Providing Penalties for Violation Thereof) to be approved. Romualdo is its principal author.

During deliberations by the House Committee on Public Information, both legislators expressed fear that media would abuse information they easily acquire through the FOI Law.

Reactions of Media Organizations to the ROR

Media organizations, separately and jointly, have expressed disagreement with the ROR being part of, or as a condition for passage of, the FOI Law.

This article mentions GMA Network specifically as having sent a letter to Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone, Chairman of the Committee on Public Information, opposing inclusion of the ROR in the provisions of the FOI Law.

Here are some more of the arguments of media against the ROR:

1. The right to know is enshrined in the Philippine constitution as well as in other laws and it is not right for it to be held hostage to another provision such as the ROR, which “goes against the basic principles that bar prior restraint in media”, Lingao said.

2. The ROR is a “violation of the freedom of the media to decide what goes on the front page…what sees print…what is said on air”. A right to reply is considered inherent in reportage among media professionals as every story always attempts to present both sides so there is no need to embed it into the FOI law or pass it as another law that would impose free airtime, print and online space on media outfits.

3. Lingao contends that the biggest media network is not any of the private TV networks we know but is actually the government network (NBN and Radyo ng Bayan). Count as well the huge amounts that government officials have budgeted for their media and public relations. So, he makes the argument: “Why, then, should we give government officials more air time and printspace…And for free at that.”

4. Compelling a media outfit to give equal space to a rebuttal or response from the aggrieved undermines editorial judgment.

Challenges Faced over the FOI Law

It’s obvious that we need the Freedom of Information Law. It’s indeed ironic that the Philippines is the only country in the Steering Committee of the Open Government Partnership without an FOI Law in place.

Just observing the goings-on in the Corona trial, many of us are realizing that too many things which are supposed to be open and disclosed actually remain hidden, away from the public eye. Time and again, friends in media have recounted how difficult it has been to request for the Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALNs) of legislators. With the FOI Law, it will be mandated that they have a right to request and get the information they need.

In past fora on FOI, I have always voiced concern that the FOI Law passed might become a watered down version. The last thing we need is a lip service FOI Law which does not serve its purpose because instead of compelling outright submission of documents being requested, other conditions may be required before these documents can be submitted.

But if the FOI Law passes together with the ROR, how effective will the FOI Law be? Will it lose teeth because every legislator who thinks a print article, news item on TV/radio or online post alludes to him will now demand he/she be heard in the same venue? How do you balance someone’s right to defend himself against a public statement vs the right to press freedom and right to know? Is ROR indeed a balancing factor against potential media abuse or is it going to be used as a tool to keep hidden what has long been hidden?

Legislators, in my opinion, have many avenues they can use to respond to news involving them other than through the ROR. What is important is to pass a strong FOI Law that can stand up to scrutiny and shoulder to shoulder with FOI laws worldwide without imposing any other provision or law that would, in any way, water it down or curtail its effective implementation.

What can citizens do to help move the passage of the FOI bill?

While media is at the forefront of moves to push for the FOI’s passage into law, we, the ordinary citizens should also be concerned. We cannot afford to end the 15th Congress without passing the FOI bill. So much headway has already been made to finally get this passed. Square one in the 16th Congress is going to be expensive and will just prolong the Philippine government’s moves toward greater transparency.

You can do something.

There is still time to press your congressmen to support and act on the FOI bill. If you have their social media accounts, tweet them, urging them to give this their highest priority. Use the hashtag #FOInow which the Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility (CMFR) is using to monitor online discussions and feedback on Twitter.

You may also add your voice to others who feel just as strongly about the FOI Law by signing this petition drawn up by the CMFR.

Lastly, I think it behooves the President to gather all his political will and push for the passing of the FOI Law. After all, this was one of the pillars of his campaign promises and even if he has already endorsed it, it is crucial that he ensures there are no stumbling blocks to its passage.

How about it, Mr. President?

Learn more about FOI by reading other articles on Blog Watch that were written on it:

Photo by Jane Uymatiao. Some rights reserved.