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Aquino won’t certify freedom of information bill

Publication Date : 12-03-2014


Despite his election campaign promise in 2010, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III is not certifying as urgent the passage of the freedom of information (FOI) bill, although senators approved their own version of the measure on Monday.

Malacanang instead urged advocates to exert pressure on members of the House of Representatives, which has not acted on the bill, to follow the Senate’s lead.

“In our view, it would be more effective if the pressure will come from citizens themselves because these are legislators who were elected by the people and they are accountable to their constituents who put them in power,” Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma told reporters.

Coloma maintained that the president was “very circumspect in the use of presidential power”, in this case, certifying to Congress the urgent approval of the bill regarded as essential in giving substance to his avowed reformist agenda and promoting transparency in governance amid widespread public outrage at purported abuse of pork barrel funds.

“That’s why he is weighing whether that is needed,” he said in Filipino, echoing the Palace’s typical response whenever asked about the matter.

Speaker's vow
Speaker Feliciano Belmonte vowed to work for the passage of the House FOI version before the current session ends. “You can hang me by the neck if it is not passed,” he told reporters on Tuesday.

Nearly four years after Aquino promised during the 2010 presidential campaign that he would work for the enactment of an FOI law, the administration-controlled House had yet to act on it.

On Monday, senators passed their version of the FOI bill on third and final reading. In the House, a technical working group is still consolidating different versions of the measure.

Coloma insisted the president, who had secured from his congressional allies the swift impeachment of then Chief Justice Renato Corona and the approval of such contentious measures as the reproductive health and sin tax bills, was not reneging on his campaign promise.

“There is no effort to avoid fulfilling that commitment,” he claimed, noting that “the commitment has already been fulfilled in actual government service” even in the absence of an FOI law.

“Our government is responsive to calls for our public servants to be more open, more transparent and to have more accountability,” Coloma said.

People pressure

Told that an FOI law would institutionalise such efforts, Coloma said: “That’s why we are one with the people in their desire to have this passed, and we hope that happens as soon as possible.”

He denied that the president preferred to have an FOI bill toward the end of his administration to deprive his critics of a way to go after him.
“There’s no such thinking,” he said.

In the previous Congress, the FOI law faced no serious obstacles at the Senate and was thus passed on third and final reading. The battleground was also the lower chamber.

A number of House members have been rejecting an FOI bill without a “right of reply” provision, a mechanism that would require news organizations to provide equal space and prominence to the response of parties involved in a story.

Critics of such a provision believe right of reply would be out of place in an FOI law, and should be considered as a separate legislative measure altogether.

24 bills to consolidate
Gabriela Rep. Luz Ilagan was skeptical that the Senate approval of the FOI bill would add pressure on the House to speed up its work on the measure.

“The chair of the committee is suspiciously and deliberately slowing down the process,” Ilagan said in an interview.

But Misamis Occidental Rep. Jorge Almonte, chair of the committee on public information, brushed off accusations that the majority was dragging its foot on the FOI bill.

24 versions
Almonte pointed out that the House had 24 different versions to consolidate in the technical working group.

“The pressure lies in the need to draft a well-crafted measure and committee report that is reflective of the views, sentiments and consensus of the members. The Senate version would be a good reference material which may facilitate consolidation of the 24 FOI bills under consideration,” Almonte said.—With a report from Gil C. Cabacungan


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