Editorial

House hypocrites

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On the proposal to enact the constitutional promise of freedom of information, the calculated incompetence of the House committee on public information has led to the outcome it wanted all along: deliberate inaction. The committee’s failure on Tuesday to even put the Freedom of Information bill to a vote, after an agonizing procedural detour, means there is very little chance that it will become law under the 15th Congress.

One FOI advocate, Deputy Speaker Lorenzo Tañada III, thinks there may still be time within the month for the committee to redeem itself and report out the bill to the plenary. Most other advocates, however, have looked into the eyes of the House leadership, and read there the bill’s obituary.

The statement issued by the Right to Know Right Now Coalition used the language of crime to describe Tuesday’s legislative maneuver.

“Battery, assault and murder—this was what happened to the FOI bill today at the hearing of the Committee on Public Information of the House of Representatives. The FOI bill is dead in the 15th Congress.”

Forceful, dramatic language, but entirely in the right. What happened the other day (or, rather, what did not happen) amounts to a crime against the people.

It is a crime in which the Aquino administration and the Liberal Party, which came to power in 2010, are complicit. Earlier this year, the administration proposed a substitute FOI bill, which its communication group described as “an integral element of the Aquino Good Governance and Anti-Corruption Plan of 2012-2016, which the President has recently approved subject to further refinements. This plan contains reforms and initiatives that pursue greater transparency, accountability and citizen participation in governance.”

We are aware, of course, that not every administration measure becomes law, and that even priority bills can fail to pass through the legislative mill. But the FOI bill is different, for two distinctive reasons.

First, President Aquino himself campaigned for the presidency on the passage of the FOI bill, among other promises, precisely because he saw it as an integral part of the initiative against corruption. And second, the administration coalition that runs the House can function with enviable efficiency when it wants to; however, when the conduct of the committee on public information can be accurately described as a bitter comedy of procedural errors—failing to find a meeting room in the sprawling Batasan complex to host a committee hearing, for example, or using up the time in a rare committee hearing to discuss the minutiae of procedure that had already been discussed and resolved in a previous meeting—then the truth becomes obvious: The House leadership, and the administration it works closely with, do not want the FOI cause to advance.

The cause of the latest delay in the already extended legislative struggle over the FOI bill betrays the real issue at stake.

For some inexplicable reason, committee chair Rep. Ben Evardone (incredibly, a former journalist) allowed Rep. Rodolfo Antonino on Tuesday to complain interminably about the supposed failure of the Technical Working Group to consider Antonino’s right of reply bill. This was absurd on many levels. The procedural issue had already been taken up. The urgency surrounding the FOI bill could not be denied. Not least, the right of reply measure had nothing substantive in common with the FOI bill. The very concept of right of reply is philosophically antagonistic to freedom of information; it is a patently unconstitutional attempt to control the editorial content of the news media. That it managed to suck up all the remaining oxygen in Evardone’s rare, ridiculous hearing is telling.

It tells us that the real issue is not journalistic responsibility in the use of public records, or even the government transparency that FOI seeks to put in place, but political power. Or to be more precise: the power of the political class.

The right-of-reply feint is the political class’ attempt to level the playing field, as the politicians understand it, in their favor: They seek to exchange the privileges they would lose under an enacted FOI with the privileges they think they will enjoy once politicians get to dictate editorial content. Battery, assault—and murder.

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