Our dream, our right: Pass the People’s FOI Act Now !

We have a dream.

We dream of a Philippines where citizens are educated and healthy; where they have adequate opportunities for decent and secure jobs, livelihood and business; and where their human rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution are respected.

We dream of a government that will take good care of our hard-earned tax money and harness it for the public good, rather than squander it on corruption and inefficiency.

We dream of public infrastructure and services that work so that we need not suffer the constant indignity and aggravation of clogged drains and flooded streets, immobilizing road traffic, dilapidated airports, on-off electric service, ill-equipped public hospitals, and inadequate classrooms, chairs and textbooks for our children.

As citizens, we go about our daily grind, difficult as it is, and contribute to our collective dream by paying taxes and by exercising our right to vote every three years.

But there are also those among us who choose to act beyond giving passive trust to our elective and appointive officials in government. Among us are non-government organizations and concerned citizens who advocate for fiscal reforms, good industrial policy, responsible use of natural resources, accountability in public spending, the defense of human rights. Too, there are among our ranks labor unions that fight to improve labor laws and standards; business organizations that aspire for efficient government administration; women’s groups that fight for gender equity; church groups that work with communities for social justice; farmers groups that push for the effective implementation of land reform; migrant rights groups that work to accord dignity and protection to OFWs and their families; journalists who bring public policy issues to our attention; and students and health practitioners who advocate for better health and education policies.

For all of us to become more effective in our work and advocacies, however, we recognize and experience the need for information, records, documents and papers in the hands of government officials and agencies.

Indeed, the people’s right to information is the lifeblood of good and meaningful citizenship, and this can be made fully operational if the Constitutional guarantee is complemented by the passage of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.

Thus, despite our serial disappointment and failure to pass this measure in the face of the continued resistance among lawmakers and executive officials, our people’s campaign to pass the FOI Act will push on in the 16th Congress.

To demonstrate our people’s unwavering determination to win the passage of the FOI Act, we will be making use of the mechanism of “Indirect Initiative” for the people to propose a national legislation under Republic Act 6735 (The Initiative and Referendum Act).

Under this law, any duly accredited people’s organization may file a petition for indirect initiative with Congress. Section 11 of RA 6735 states:

Section 11. Indirect Initiative. — Any duly accredited people’s organization, as defined by law, may file a petition for indirect initiative with the House of Representatives, and other legislative bodies. The petition shall contain a summary of the chief purposes and contents of the bill that the organization proposes to be enacted into law by the legislature.

The procedure to be followed on the initiative bill shall be the same as the enactment of any legislative measure before the House of Representatives except that the said initiative bill shall have precedence over the pending legislative measures on the committee.

We call this the “People’s FOI Bill”. It embodies the broad level of consensus among the various stakeholders in both government and private sector who were consulted in the long legislative history of the proposed FOI law.

In this bill, we have taken into account the spirit and letter of the bicameral conference report of the 14th Congress, the proposed amendments by the Malacañang Study Group to address concerns expressed by President Aquino, and the further refinements introduced in the 15th Congress by the House Committee on Public Information Technical Working Group headed by former Deputy Speaker Lorenzo R. Tañada III, by the Senate Committee on Public Information headed by Senator Gregorio B. Honasan II, and by the Senate plenary (particularly in response to the interpellation by Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago) that approved the FOI bill up to its Third Reading.

Most importantly, this bill highlights substance and language that FOI advocates, forming the Right to Know. Right Now! Coalition, have formed consensus on.

In summary, the People’s FOI Bill :
· Clarifies the scope of accessible information by defining clearly the list of allowable exceptions, and removing the wide discretion in withholding or granting access;

· Provides a uniform and speedy procedure for people’s access to information, including how requests are made, how requests are responded to, and what remedies are available in case of denial, and closing the loophole that allows administrative avoidance of access;

· Enumerates specific acts violative of the right to information that constitute administrative or criminal offenses, to provide as both deterrent and mechanism for accountability for the observance of the right; and,

· Introduces mechanisms to facilitate better citizen access to information, such as providing standards for record keeping and mandating the pro-active disclosure of classes of information imbued with high public interest.

We have a dream of many good parts: a nation of informed citizens fully engaged in the practice of our right to know; a government transparent and accountable not just in form or in words, but more so in substance and deeds; a Constitution binding in both theory and practice to all our lawmakers; a progressive and prosperous Philippines marked by both good governance and good citizenship.

Even as we are well aware that many politicians will work to thwart our dream and confine us to passive trust in government, we are determined to win and embrace the passage of the People’s FOI Bill as our collective statement of citizenship.

We know it will not be easy. We therefore invite all people’s organizations and concerned individuals to help us bring this FOI movement to success. We keep faith that sometime soon, our determined political action will enable us to finally win the People’s FOI Act in the 16th Congress.