House panel votes 10-3 to okay FOI

But militant solons tag it ‘watered-down, toothless’ version

THE House committee on public information approved on Monday a consolidated version of freedom of information bill that militant lawmakers said contained “more restrictions to information access than freedom.”

The committee, chaired by Misamis Occidental Rep. Jorge Almonte, approved the measure by a vote of 10-3.

Reps. Xavier Jesus Romualdo of Camiguin,
Neri Colmenares of Bayan Muna and
Antonio Tinio of ACT Teachers party-list
The three lawmakers who voted against the measure were Reps. Xavier Jesus Romualdo of Camiguin, Neri Colmenares of Bayan Muna and Antonio Tinio of ACT Teachers party-list--all authors of the FOI bill.

DIWA party-list Rep. Emmeline Aglipay moved to approve the consolidated version of the FOI bill, which had been discussed by the committee’s technical working group for almost a year.

Colmenares said he opposed the bill because it included several exceptions to the granting of access to information, which “restrict rather than ease access to government documents and information.”

Out of frustration, Colmenares said the Makabayan bloc will withdraw its authorship to the measure.

Colmenares, a House deputy minority leader, lamented the decision of the panel to approve a “toothless” FOI version.

“We just approved a watered-down version of the bill where exceptions become the rule,” Colmenares said, noting that passing these would defeat the purpose of the bill.

Colmenares said they wanted a version of the FOI bill that does not have any exceptions at all with regard to access to public informtion.

“A genuine freedom of information law is what this country, embattled by graft and corruption, human rights violations and social injustices, needs,”Colmenares said.

“The country does not need a watered-down, weak and toothless freedom of information law which, while seemingly generous, actually makes it more difficult for the people to access government information,” Colmenares said.

But Almonte said amendments or any addition to the House-approved version of the measure can still be addressed in the plenary during second or third and final reading.

He said the consolidated FOI bill is both “progressive but well-balanced” after members of the technical working group debated it for nine meetings that lasted almost a year.

“The TWG devoted the most time on the FOI bill deliberating on the provisions on exceptions and even went to the extent of discussing them line by line,” he said.

Ifugao Rep. Teddy Baguilat said members of the panel aimed to pass the FOI bill at the committee level as soon as possible so debates in the plenary can start immediately.

“A lot of lawmakers have been telling us, ‘how can we endorse the bill if it’s still in the committee level?’” he told reporters after the hearing. “That’s why we resolved among ourselves to approve the bill already so it could be brought to the plenary.”

Following the Public Information panel’s approval of the FOI bill, the measure will be deliberated on by the appropriations committee, which will iron out details on funding its implementation.

Baguilat said funding will be necessary to equip government agencies with the right tools to disclose information through their websites and other means.

Under the consolidated FOI bill, government agencies will be mandated to respond to a party’s request for information within 15 working days.

This period of compliance, however, may be extended whenever the information requested requires a search of the government agency’s field or satellite offices, examination of voluminous records, the occurrence of fortuitous events or other analogous cases.

An imprisonment period of not less than one month but not more than six months, and dismissal from service will be meted out to those who are found guilty of falsely denying or concealing the existence of information mandated for disclosure, and those who destroy or cause to destroy information or documents being requested.

Almonte said the middle of 2015 was a viable target for the bill to be approved on third and final reading since the House leadership has other priority measures such as the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law and the anti-political dynasty bill.

Colmenares objected to restrictions listed in Section 7 of the draft consolidated bill, that included:

• Information authorized to be kept secret under guidelines established by an executive order;

• Records of minutes and advice given and opinions expressed during decision-making or policy formulation;

• Information pertaining to internal or external defense, law enforcement, and border control;

• Draft orders, resolutions, decisions, memoranda, and audit reports

• Information obtained by Congress in executive session.

Kabataan party-list Rep. Terry Ridon said if these restrictions are passed into law, the FOI law would ironically curtail access to information in several areas vital to public interest.

“The draft 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.

“For example, the President can easily cloak details pertinent to the assailed Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) through the use of one or a combination of provisions listed in Section 7. Remember how difficult it was to obtain more detailed information on DAP? The situation could get worse if the exceptions in the draft consolidated bill passes into law” Ridon said.

Ridon said the consolidated bill – for the large part – enlarges the powers and control of the President and his Cabinet over government information.

“The bill will still undergo further discussions and debates. Certainly, we will do everything to ensure that the restrictive provisions will not pass into law. We cannot let the Palace nor anyone with vested interests sabotage the people’s clamor for genuine freedom of information by inserting debilitating restrictions to the proposed law,” Ridon said.

The Senate passed its version of the FOI bill in March with 21 senators voting its passage. No one voted against the measure.

Senator Grace Poe, who sponsored the FOI bill at the Senate as chairperson of the public information committee, said the Senate version was stronger than the ones approved before.

The Senate passed an earlier FOI bill during the last Congress, but the House shelved the bill at the committee level, where it languished for more than a year.

Poe said that the Senate’s FOI bill derives its strength from a provision which requires the public disclosure of Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth not only of national officials, but also of local government leaders.

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