FOI advocates demand action by House of Representatives

Today, the world celebrates International Right to Know Day.

We are members of the Right to Know. Right Now! Coalition, a network of more than 150 organizations from various sectors that have long been campaigning for the passage of a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. Together with concerned groups and individuals, we are lighting candles in the early evening today, September 27, at the gates of the House of Representatives, to symbolize our desire to have a government where information is illuminated and made accessible to all citizens. We are joined by other groups in simultaneous action in different localities, and by those who express solidarity and common call through social media using the hashtag #LightUp4FOI.

We call on the leaders and members of the House of Representatives to demonstrate concrete and positive action on FOI, and match the decisive action so far shown by the Senate.

First, we demand that Majority Leader Neptali M. Gonzales II and the Committee on Rules calendar the First Reading and referral of the People’s FOI Bill, filed by people’s organizations through Indirect Initiative, immediately upon resumption of session on October 14. Republic Act 6735 (The Initiative and Referendum Act) under which the Petition was filed is unambiguous with respect to the required action by the House of Representatives on such a Petition. Section 11 of the said law states that any duly accredited people’s organization may file a petition for indirect initiative with the House of Representatives, and that “(T)he 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.”

Under the House Rules, the House Secretary General should report within (3) session days from receipt the bill for First Reading, which involves as well referral of the Bill by the Speaker to the appropriate committee. We filed the Petition on the first working day of the 16th Congress on July 1, yet up to now the Petition remains stalled with the Committee on Rules.

Second, we demand that Speaker Belmonte and the House leadership make a clear public commitment to pass the FOI bill at the soonest. Such commitment must be accompanied with a credible and specific timetable, similar to the announcement by the Senate of its target to pass the People’s FOI Bill up to Third Reading by the end of this year.

Third, we demand that the Committee on Public Information immediately commence the deliberation of the FOI bills upon resumption of session in October. Similar to what was done at the Senate, the Chairperson should already announce the number of hearings needed to reach consolidation, pre-set the specific dates of the hearings and agenda for each setting, and submit its report to plenary before the end of this year.

Fourth, we demand that members of Congress put the public interest ahead of their personal concerns, and withdraw insistence on an unconstitutional Right of Reply rider to the FOI.

These demands are reasonable, not only to reverse the history of House resistance to and inaction on FOI, but, more importantly, in light of the discovery of the PDAF scam. The PDAF Scam exposed how we Filipinos continue to fall victims to plunder despite numerous government mechanisms to protect public funds. PDAF projects are supposed to conform to a limited menu, and are subject to oversight by Congress, the Department of Budget and Management and the implementing agencies. Each project has to abide by the Procurement Act, stringent guidelines on release of funds and participation by NGOs, and is subject to regular audit by COA. The breakdown at different points in these government safeguard mechanisms highlights the urgency and need to pass the People’s FOI Act, to empower us citizens to directly protect ourselves against abuses of the hard-earned resources that we entrust to government.

The occasion of Light Up for FOI at a time when the House of Representatives is wrapping up the approval of 2.268 trillion pesos in budget for 2014 puts forth the need to bring to light not only PDAF that constitute less than 1.5% of the national budget, but also the much bigger chunk of public resources. We also need to bring to light the decision-making of government to allow citizens the capacity for informed participation.

September 27 is also the eve of the International Right to Know Day. The International Right to Know Day is a day nominated by FOI advocates from different countries beginning 2002. It reminds us that the Right to Know is rarely given on a silver platter; it is a right that we citizens must demand and fight for. The candles we light today represent our enduring fight for the People’s Freedom of Information Act.

The Right to Know. Right Now! Coalition
27 September 2013