“The people demand a genuine FOI law, and those who wish to thwart this are on the defensive in light of the corruption, anomalies, human rights abuses and injustices previously covered up due to information restrictions.”
By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA – Legislators under the Makabayan coalition withdrew their sponsorship of the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill, which they described as “defanged.”
The House Committee on Public Information approved Nov. 24 the consolidated bill titled “An Act to Strengthen the Right of Citizens to Information Held by the Government.”
For Makabayan lawmakers, however, the legislation is everything but providing access to information. In their position paper, Bayan Muna Representatives Neri Javier Colmenares, Karlos Zarate, ACT Teachers Rep. Antonio Tinio, Kabataan Party Rep. Terry Ridon, Gabriela Women’s Party Representatives Emmi de Jesus and Luzviminda Ilagan, and Anakpawis Rep. Fernando Hicap, said the consolidated version “has been greatly weakened and practically made toothless by several serious and far-reaching exceptions that defeat the spirit and intent of the right to freedom of information.”
The consolidated bill adopted all of the exceptions proposed by Malacañang in its own version of an FOI bill. These exceptions, according to deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte “are necessary to ensure that government work will continue while the public is being given access to information.”
Makabayan legislators deemed otherwise, saying that the current version allows withholding of information crucial to efforts to curb corruption and other government abuses.
Section 5 of the bill states that income tax returns, and statement of assets, liabilities and networth (SALN) of public officials shall be released subject to existing laws, rules and regulations. This provision, according to Makabayan legislators, betrays the people’s demand for transparency among public officials. All SALNs must be made public, without limitations, and even published in the internet for anyone to access.
The progressive lawmakers added that Section 7, which pertains to exceptions, “actually makes denial of access the rule rather than the exception.”
Section 7 ( c ) (iv) allows withholding of information from confidential sources. With this provision, the Makabayan bloc said information revealed by whistleblower Benhur Luy on the identity of legislators involved in the pork barrel scam, for example, might be withheld from the public.
Section 7 (d), meanwhile, exempts access to drafts of orders, resolutions, decisions, memoranda or audit reports by any executive, administrative, regulatory, constitutional, judicial or quasi-judicial body in the exercise of their adjudicatory and/or audit function. Makabayan bloc said the exception must not include the executive agencies, arguing that the policy-making of the executive department must be transparent and participative. It stated that a draft proposal/decision by the executive privatizing government hospitals or schools or realigning budgetary items through Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), for example, could not be withheld from the public.
“The consolidated bill essentially empowers the Executive – primarily – to decide on which information may be disclosed to the public and which information should remain in the impenetrable shroud of secrecy,” Ridon said.
The Makabayan bloc added that Section 7( c ), which exempts access to information pertaining to internal and/or external defense, law enforcement, and border control, is overbroad. The group deems the exception should be limited to “legitimate, ongoing, tactical police and military operations.” As it is, the group said information requested by the media on the likes of the Atimonan massacre, or human rights violations during military operations is easily withheld because of this exception.
Makabayan legislators vowed to take their objections to the restrictive provisions of the consolidated FOI bill to the plenary.
“The people demand a genuine FOI law, and those who wish to thwart this are on the defensive in light of the corruption, anomalies, human rights abuses and injustices previously covered up due to information restrictions,” Makabayan lawmakers said.