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Aquino sends FOI bill to death row

The administration of President Aquino pronounced on Tuesday the death sentence on the freedom of information (FOI) bill by leaving the fate of its passage in the hands of its minions in the House of Representatives.

A day after the Senate passed its version of the FOI bill, the President adamantly refused to certify the legislation as urgent, in violation of his pledge when he was campaigning for the presidency in 2010 on a platform of transparency in governance. Prior to his inauguration, the President promised he would give priority to the passage of the bill. The bill has since languished in the House, where the administration’s multiparty coalition has a commanding majority. With the passing of the years, the President’s commitment to back the measure has increasingly waned. The FOI bills in the House are trapped there, and are being lynched there.

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The President has failed to mention the measure in his three State of the Nation Addresses so far, and the prospects of putting it back on top of his legislative agenda appears dim.

Commenting on the Senate’s approval of its version of the FOI bill, a Malacañang spokesperson urged the proponents to exert pressure on the members of the House, to follow the Senate’s lead.

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In a complete cop-out, the spokesperson said: “In our view, it will be more effective if the pressure will come from the citizens themselves because these are legislators who were elected by the people and they are accountable to their constituents who put them in power.” But we have to remind Malacañang that the President has been elected to lead and to certify to Congress the urgency of certain key legislative initiatives—including, of course, the FOI bill. The members of Congress, especially the majority in the House, take their cue on what is important or urgent from the Chief Executive. And if the troops in the House perceive that the President’s political will in pushing the FOI bill forward is faltering, or his heart is not in it, they are likely to lose interest in pushing the measure and will soon abandon it.

As we observe developments in the House indicating that the President is no longer serious in his commitment to ensure the free flow of information about the government’s management of public business, we find strong basis to doubt the government’s sense of purpose in opening its files and transactions to public access and scrutiny. This lip service to the free flow of information on government transactions cannot be maintained forever without being suspected by the public as a fraud perpetrated in the guise of such slogans as “daang matuwid.”

The Malacañang spokesperson excused the absence of a sense of urgency toward the passage of the FOI bill by saying that Mr. Aquino was “very circumspect in the use of presidential power”—in this case, certifying to Congress as urgent the approval of the measure regarded as essential in “giving substance to his avowed reformist agenda and promoting transparency in governance amid widespread public outrage at the purported abuse of pork barrel funds.”

That’s why “he is weighing whether [the certifying of urgency] is needed,” the spokesperson said.

The hibernation of the FOI bill in the House for more than two years has also cast strong doubt on the pledge of Speaker Feliciano Belmonte to work for its passage before the current session ends. “You can hang me by the neck if it is not passed,” the Speaker had told reporters. But the records are not on Belmonte’s side. The House committee on public information is still consolidating 20 FOI bills filed, in a last-minute f renzy of cramming.

The chances of passage of an FOI bill in the House should be considered in the light of the fact that a number of congressmen have tucked into one of the bills a right-of-reply provision in exchange for the passage of a consolidated bill. This provision is a highly contentious issue, which is vigorously opposed by news media organizations as an infringement on the freedom of the press. This issue alone is a potential flashpoint of debates that can only exacerbate the delay of its passage in the House.

It can spell the doom of ever passing an FOI bill under the Aquino administration.

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TAGS: amando doronila, column, freedom of information bill, President Benigno Aquino III
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