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FOI: soon or never?

More than 14 years and three presidents ago, or since the 12th Congress, freedom of information advocates have been pushing for the FOI bill’s passage. It’s been an uphill trek, with lots of rock slides and turnbacks, and on the part of the lawmakers, dillydallying and last-minute disappearing acts. If the FOI bill were a cardiac patient in the emergency room, it would have had several near-death experiences. But FOI believers never said die every time the bill flat-lined.

If this were a telenovela, it should be on its nth season by now.

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The next nine months will be crucial to the FOI bill’s passage or nonpassage into law. It is now in the hands of the 16th Congress and up to the pushing power of the Aquino administration whose mandate ends in June 2016.

Two days ago, the Right to Know, Right Now! (R2K RN) Coalition issued a statement urging Congress to speed up work on the FOI bill so that it would be passed into law by February 2016. The coalition says that if that happens, the law will become “the perpetual pillar and legacy of the democracy that Filipinos claimed and restored under Aquino’s late mother, Corazon ‘Cory’ Aquino.” It will be the best 2015 Christmas gift for the Filipino people. What a great way to mark the 30th anniversary of the February 1986 People Power uprising that toppled the Marcos dictatorship and ushered in freedom.

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But for the FOI bill to be passed, it first has to be stirred back to life. The following steps must be taken, the R2K RN Coalition says:

  • The House’s consolidated version of the bill is sponsored in plenary, and interpellation and debate substantially started between now and June 11, when the second regular session adjourns sine die.
  • The period of interpellation is done, the bill is approved on second reading, amendments are finished, and the bill is approved on third reading in the House between July 27 (when Congress starts its third regular session) and November.
  • The bicameral conference committee of the Senate and the House finalizes a reconciled bill and its report is ratified in both chambers by December.
  • The Enrolled People’s FOI Bill is presented to the President for approval in January.
  • Finally, President Aquino signs the enrolled bill into law in February.

FOI advocates are monitoring the actions of the House, the Senate and the President through “Congress Action on FOI Tracker.” Interested citizens and lawmakers as well can check out the link http://i-foi.org.

The Who’s Who in civil society have signed the R2K RN Coalition statement for the speedy passage of the FOI bill, with the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism in the lead.

Meanwhile, the coalition notes the Makabayan bloc of lawmakers’ assertion that the FOI bill approved by the House committee on public information with certain exceptions is “a greatly watered-down and weakened version.” Not at all, the coalition says. It adds that the Makabayan bloc’s version “advocates a near-absolute right to information, and does not admit reasonable exceptions based on legitimate competing interests and rights.”

Citing the 103 countries with FOI laws, the coalition says their laws “invariably spell out exceptions, and appropriate remedies for citizens.” It also says measures are being taken to make sure that the consolidated bill will be “a genuine and strong FOI bill that fully protects the people’s right to information while carefully balancing it with legitimate interests of individuals, the state and the bureaucracy.”

An all-or-nothing stance with extreme conditions can result in nothing, unless that is, in fact, what its hardline proponents want—nothing, for whatever purpose it may serve their agenda.

But the coalition is also making sure that a criminal provision in the Senate bill will be amended when it reaches the bicameral conference state. Section 22 (e) of the Senate versions holds criminally liable “any individual who divulges or releases information covered under Section 7 of this Act.” The coalition wants to see this deleted because “this act is already penalized under Article 229 of the Revised Penal Code.”

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Bear in mind that the R2K RN Coalition and those interested in the bill’s passage (the media, especially) have a timetable. The bill should have easy passage because the Senate version has already been approved on third reading and was, in fact, awaiting the House version in March 2014, or more than a year ago. But the timetable is tight. Only four weeks remain before the second regular session ends on June 11.

With Congress occupied with the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, there is only July 27 left when President Aquino delivers his last State of the Nation Address and Congress begins its third regular session. After that the FOI bill will have to compete and jostle with other pending measures, including the 2016 budget. By October, many legislators will be focused on the filing of candidacy for the 2016 elections.

So what hope is there for the FOI bill, which has faced tempests and hurdles in the past? The hope lies in Congress ratifying a bicameral conference committee report before it goes on recess in December. The period from now to June 11 is “the last two minutes” when interpellation should take place and issues are addressed.

Here’s hoping that the FOI bill will be passed into law during the 16th Congress and the Aquino presidency. What an enduring, timeless gift to the Filipino people!

My “Pass FOI Bill Now” T-shirt is again ready for the streets.

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Send feedback to [email protected] or www.ceresdoyo.com

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