Human Face

The murder of the FOI bill

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Last Monday, in a last-ditch effort, groups marched to and rallied in Mendiola in the vain hope that the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill would become a reality after years of languishing in the desert despite the valiant efforts of its advocates. And for it to get past (to borrow the title of a Lemony Snicket blockbuster) the “series of unfortunate events” that bedeviled it, no thanks to the closet and openly harmful antis.

I joined the marchers and we shouted ourselves hoarse—“FOI, isabatas, isabatas! FOI, ipasa, ipasa!”—in the hope that our voices would get past Malacañang’s gates and reach the ears of the people there. We lighted candles that symbolized our undiminished hope.

The next day, Tuesday, the hearing of the House committee on public information on the FOI bill was conducted. This was how the FOI advocates present at the hearing summarized what happened: BAM (as in “battery, assault and murder”)! for the Freedom of Information bill.

The bad news: The FOI bill is dead in the 15th Congress.

From the point of view of FOI supporters, this was how the hearing transpired:

By ensuring that no committee report will be approved in [Tuesday’s] hearing, the House committee on public information has for all intents and purposes left no time for any FOI measure to get approved in the 15th Congress.

Committee chair Rep. Ben Evardone was the biggest disappointment of all. His error: a dismal failure of leadership. (He was a Malaya reporter in his younger days.)

First, Evardone enrolled the FOI bill as the last of eight items on the committee’s agenda. When the committee finally discussed the FOI bill, he next allowed Rep. Rodolfo Antonino to hijack most of the proceedings and perorate endlessly on how Antonino’s right of reply bill was not considered by the committee’s Technical Working Group (TWG) led by FOI proponent Rep. Lorenzo “Erin” Tañada III.

In effect, Antonino made certain that the committee’s time was wasted on his redundant insistence on having his complaint heard. In truth, Antonino raised the very same issue at the last committee hearing in March. In fact, his complaint was resolved in that last hearing.

In the end, the committee lost time to discuss any substantive issues on the FOI bill, particularly its contents. And when a motion was made and seconded to put the consolidated bill to a vote, Antonino, who used up most of the committee’s time to complain about the TWG, promptly moved to adjourn the committee hearing, citing a technicality that was sustained by the committee chair.

What happened on Tuesday was just the final blow delivered by Evardone and Antonino, which left the rest of the committee members uncannily helpless to stop the slaughter of the FOI bill.

By all indications, the conspiracy to kill the FOI bill had commenced much earlier.

President Aquino led the battery and assault on the FOI bill with his mindless “concerns” about it. In January, at the height of the Corona impeachment trial, he all too suddenly endorsed the bill, albeit in a few perfunctory press statements only. But in the next eight months, nothing more was heard from him by way of real proof of endorsement of the bill.

The President’s Liberal Party allies in the House, led by Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. and Majority Leader Neptali Gonzalez III, did not move either. They neither pushed nor nudged the bill to fruition. Evardone did not call committee hearings until Tuesday.

The FOI bill is dead, actually murdered in its tracks. Its butchers? The lackadaisical Evardone. The mindlessly perorating Antonino. The President and his flaccid support. Belmonte, Gonzalez, and the Liberal Party leaders of the House, by propping and blessing Evardone’s duplicity on the FOI bill.

There. This series of unfortunate events was witnessed by concerned groups and individuals led by lawyer Nepomuceno Malaluan of the Institute for Freedom of Information and Right to Know Right Now! Coalition, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, the Southeast Asia Monitor for Action, the Access to Information Network, and many others.

The Second Front Page of the Inquirer yesterday carried Leila S. Salaverria’s news report headlined “Time running out on FOI bill.” Her lead paragraphs: “Hope is dimming for the passage of the [FOI] bill in the House of Representatives, after the committee vote on its approval [Tuesday] got mired in technical procedures and what one lawmaker called ‘minute’ issues.

“Despite the motions by some lawmakers to put the consolidated FOI bill to a vote, public information committee chair Ben Evardone adjourned the hearing, saying they had run out of time since the plenary session was about to start at 4 p.m. and there were still many issues to resolve at the next hearing.

“As it turned out, there was no plenary session as there was no quorum on the floor….”

FOI advocate Tañada was reported as saying that unless both the Senate and the House passed their respective versions before Christmas (a little more than a month away), there was little hope it would become a law before the end of the 15th Congress—which is like saying it is as good as dead in the water. For now.

The FOI bill is feared by the powerful and guilty; if passed, it will allow the public to get information on government transactions and documents that were once inaccessible or held in secret. The bill will allow for more transparency, curb corruption, and promote good governance.

Who’s afraid of FOI? Is there hope in the 16th Congress?

(Send feedback to cerespd@gmail.com or www.ceresdoyo.com)

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