Analysis

Freedom of information bill hits the doldrums

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Now, it’s the turn of the freedom of information bill to languish in the doldrums after the passage of the reproductive health bill in Congress.

President Aquino pledged to back the bill during the 2010 elections, but the political will to push the bill through Congress has lagged far behind the promise, as the administration chalks up results of its legislative agenda during the past three years. The bill was touted as a benchmark of the Aquino administration’s commitment to transparent and open government. It is now ensnared in the traps of legislative delays in the congressional mill.

He refused to certify the bill as urgent to Congress, in contrast to the heavy-handed actions the President made in pushing the RH bill, riding roughshod over the opposition of the politically influential Roman Catholic Church.

In refusing to certify the bill as urgent to Congress, the President is sending powerful signals to his cohorts to put up countless excuses to strangle the legislation on its path, eventually leading to the scaffold of the guillotine for execution. He has also expressed reservations about the bill. All these signs have served as a cue to kill the bill by a docile Congress, which steamrolled the RH bill and the impeachment of former Chief Justice Renato Corona.

Sponsors of the FOI bill fear that the expected lack of quorum would hamper debates on the bill and its passage in the House of Representatives, before it goes on break for the May 2013 mid-term elections. The Senate has already passed its own version of the  bill. Deputy Speaker Lorenzo Tañada III, who introduced the House version of the bill, HB No. 53, has expressed doubts over whether the nine remaining session days next year would be sufficient to complete the process of passing the bill in the House.

There is doubt whether congressmen would be returning to the House to attend sessions when it reopens on Jan. 21. Tañada said there would be a  problem in having a quorum if there are no warm bodies. Another lawmaker said absenteeism, which leads to lack of quorum, is a “perennial problem of an election year.” He said lawmakers could be prompted to attend sessions, if the House leadership would exercise political will and crack the whip on them to show up, and if there is a strong public opinion in support of the  bill. A certification from President Aquino, said Ifugao Rep. Teddy Baguilat, a coauthor of the bill, may be needed to clinch the FOI bill’s passage.

But Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. has said he was not going to ask the President to certify the measure.

Rep. Ben Evardone, chair of the public  information committee, failed to deliver his sponsorship speech a week ago, but lack of quorum and the ratification of the bicameral conference report on the RH bill derailed the bill’s introduction on the floor. Tañada said that with the constant delays encountered by the bill, the measure is “back in the ICU.” The bill is claimed to promote transparency and accountability in government, by removing the veil of secrecy shrouding its transactions. It seeks to make public access to government data easier. It declares a government policy of full public disclosure of transactions involving public interest, subject to certain limitations, including information relating to national security and defense.

These proponents received a boost from President Aquino who on Nov. 16 told the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas meeting in Tagaytay City that journalists should not fear the right of reply if they practice balanced reporting.

The claim that the general public would benefit from the bill has a dubious basis. Most of the complaints about access to newspaper or broad cast space emanate mainly from politicians. They are the foremost users of this space, especially the President, who is the No. 1 newsmaker in the country. They have access to media more than other sectors in society because public officials are the main sources of news, arising from the fact that they deal in public business.

It’s hard to understand why public officials still want to have guaranteed space in media to reply when they, among other sectors, have priority to space on account of public interest issues invested in their occupation. They are the most over-represented occupier of media space. What they want is a special legislation allowing them more space than they already have access to.

It is already second nature to journalists to  seek the side of offended citizens, offended by adverse publicity in controversial issues, to achieve balance in the news. But the proponents of the right of reply seek to determine what is balanced news instead of independent journalists deciding this. Balanced news is a tricky issue. Who determines what is balance? The interests of fair and free publication of news and opinion are, according to experience, better served when left in the hands of trained and independent journalists and news media.

Put this in the hands of politicians and public  officials, and we are closer to censorship and bad newspapers, echoing government propaganda, than you think. Defamatory malicious journalism can still be countered by laws on libel.

But what is the defense of ordinary citizens from character assassination and defamation through privilege speeches, especially when accompanied  by demands for publication under right of reply?

Never trust any politician who demands the right to muzzle the press and who claims to be the  incarnation of incorruptibility in public office.

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