Random ramblings from a national democrat.
“The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized. Access to official records, and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.”
– Section 7 of the 1987 Constitution Bill of Rights
However democratically worded, such promise of transparency and information in the government (as mandated by the constitution) is not always the case. In one way or another, the public, especially journalists, have been denied access to these important information. The Freedom of Information Bill, which has been languishing in Congress for years, seeks to provide answers to this problem.
What is the FOI Bill anyway?
The Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill, known otherwise as “An Act to Strengthen the Right of Citizens to Information Held by the Government,” is a controversial legislation that seeks to fully and publicly disclose government transactions involving matters of public interest.
Who are the people behind the bill?
The FOI in its present form is actually a consolidation of fourteen different bills, whose authors include Representatives Lorenzo Tañada III, Teddy Casino, Neri Colmenares and Sherwin Tugna, among others.
Just why do we need this bill?
While the present constitution guarantees the right to information of the citizens, public offices and public officials can get away with denying access to information as an enabling act such as the FOI bill has still not seen the light of day.
This means that citizens can continually be subjected to red tape by government offices in the process of acquiring public documents and records. The disclosure of such documents is crucial to ensure the transparency of government transactions. In light of this, the passage of the FOI serves the interest of the tax-paying public.
Where is it now?
With the contentious outcome of last Tuesday’s Committee on Public Information’s hearing on the FOI, stakeholders believe that the Congress had just passed a “death sentence” upon this much sought-after legislation. Committee Chair Ben Evardone has denied this however, stating that the Committee needs more time to clarify issues regarding the much-debated bill.
The Proponents vs. The Chief Executive
Leading FOI proponent Teddy Casino of Bayan Muna believes that the President had a hand in persuading fellow members of the Committee not to put the bill to vote. “I challenge my colleagues in the public information committee to show some balls and approve the bill even if it means earning the ire of the President,” he said.
The Malacanang has previously showed “support” for the bill, even adding helpful provisions such as special assistance for the illiterate and the disabled. However, it appears the tide has already turned against the bill, with PNoy now very vocal in his support for a Right of Reply provision, which is essentially contradictory to mission of the FOI bill.
With the contentious turnout of events in the FOI’s journey to becoming a law in the current 15th Congress, the proponents may have to refile the bill in the 16th Congress next year. This would repeat the tedious process all over again, allowing legislators to subject the bill to further revisions that might work against the very essence of freedom of information.
One form of revision is the aforementioned Right of Reply, which asks news organizations to publish or air the side of a person subject to scrutiny in a journalistic work. In essence, the Right of Reply bill runs counter to the democratic aspirations of the freedom of information.
Such moves could, on one hand, act as de facto prior restraint, making news outlets think twice on reporting controversial issues regarding public figures and government agencies.