FOI Coalition urges @noynoyaquino: Lead, Remember FOI in SONA

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In the next fortnight on July 23, President Benigno S. Aquino III will deliver the state-of-the-nation address (SONA), his third as chief executive.

For the third time in as many years, too, the 160 organizations and civil society leaders that compose the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition, have submitted to the President an earnest appeal: Remember the Freedom of Information bill, and give it a vigorous push in the SONA!

In January 2012, in fact, the President himself had endorsed an administration version of the FOI, albeit in a press statement only.

Yet while the Senate has moved quickly to pass its version of the FOI bill soon after the impeachment trial and conviction of then chief justice Renato C. Corona, the FOI bill remains stuck in limbo at the committee on public information of the House of Representatives. The committee’s chairperson, Rep. Ben Evardone, a former journalist, and the House majority coalition led by the President’s Liberal Party allies, have largely ignored Mr. Aquino’s administration measure.

The House conducted only two committee hearings on the FOI — a bill that has been filed and refiled since the 12th Congress or in the last 14 years. But time is running short for the House to enact reform legislation such as the FOI because the campaign for the May 2013 elections will soon commence with the filing of certificates of candidacy in October 2012.

On behalf of the Coalition, we would like to share with you a letter to the President and a press statement that the Coalition members delivered yesterday at a meeting in Malacanang with Press Undersecretary Manuel “Manolo” L. Quezon III (see below)

A MULTISECTORAL delegation of the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition met with Press Undersecretary Manuel L. Quezon III on Wednesday to deliver a joint letter to President Aquino with an urgent appeal for him to make a clear and firm endorsement of the passage of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act in his state-of-the-nation address on July 23.

In the letter, 80 leaders and signatories from about 160 organizations that compose the Coalition called on the President’s leadership in the passage of the FOI Act. It said that the 2013 elections would in part be a referendum on how President Aquino’s administration, midway in its term, has been keeping to its mandate of change.

While noting that the President has staked political capital to stand on the side of transparency on many critical issues, such as the obligation of government officials especially at the highest levels to disclose their SALNs to the public, the Coalition emphasized that the fight to transform government is far from over.

“The question is whether the path towards higher norms of governance that you espouse can be institutionalized through a truly transformed culture in public service. It is this challenge that makes the passage of the FOI Act indispensable. It will make transparency the mandatory norm rather than a mere discretion and an unevenly implemented policy for government. It could well serve as the solid foundation for ‘daang matuwid’, to carry on to succeeding administrations”, the Coalition said in the letter.

House inaction

The Coalition emphasized the leadership ramifications of a decisive endorsement by President Aquino of the passage of the FOI bill at a crucial juncture when the House leadership has shown a lack of political will to even take the first steps to pass it.

In contrast to the Senate where a substitute bill endorsed by nearly all its members has already been sponsored in plenary by Committee Chairman Senator Gregorio B. Honasan II, the measure remains stuck in the counterpart House committee chaired by Rep. Ben Evardone. Even the President’s Liberal Party and administration coalition allies in the House have largely ignored his verbal push for the passage of the FOI bill over the last six months.

The Coalition stressed that every day of inaction by the House diminishes the prospects of the passage of the FOI bill, and conversely increases the ability of those opposed to the bill to prevent its passage.

Given that the time available to pass the measure is fast closing on the 15th Congress, the Coalition argued that a decisive push from the Executive, similar to what we have seen in the postponement of the ARMM election, the impeachment of Chief Justice Renato Corona, and the ongoing legislation of the sin-tax bill, will be necessary for the FOI law to finally pass.

Broad clamor

The letter-request is in itself a demonstration of the wide clamor for FOI. More than 80 heads of organizations from various sectors signed the letter, including the media, labor, business, academe, lawyers, the church, students, and public interest organizations.

The Coalition said the move to write the President was also in response to a recent statement by Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda that the President is open to suggestions on the themes and contents of his SONA.

The Coalition expressed hope that after failing to make it to the first two SONAs of President Aquino, the FOI will finally be given the attention it rightfully deserves in the President’s priorities.

The coalition committed to intensify its campaign in the coming weeks.

Letter to President Aquino: Passage of the Freedom of Information Act