Philippines: Congress Fails to Pass Freedom of Information Bill

The Philippine Congress last session was marked by its failure to pass the Freedom of Information Bill, a landmark law that will enforce a policy of disclosure to government transactions. The proposed law sanctions officials who deny access to information and is perceived as essential to ensuring the people's constitutional right to know (The killed bill can be read in full here).

The Daily PCIJ blog of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism closely follows the fortunes of the Freedom of Information Bill. The Daily PCIJ reports on the immediate cause of the bill's death:

House Speaker Prospero Nograles adjourned sine die (without a next session) the legislative session of the 14th Congress moments ago, shutting the door for the ratification of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.

The adjournment came after the House secretary-general counted 128 congressmen present in today’s session, two shy of a quorum.

Pulitika2010 reposts “the names of 139 congressmen who were either absent or were present but did not respond to the roll call” and thus led to the death of the bill.

Anti-Pinoy links the non-passage of the bill to the issue of absenteeism in government and proposes its passage through People's Initiative.

Given the state of technology today, I say – if the lawmakers will not do their job – we, the citizens – can, and will. The citizens will render the lawmakers obsolete by crafting legislation via digital crowdsourcing technologies. I am talking of genuine people power – managed to deliver results via institutional mechanisms provided in the Philippine Constitution and the accompanying enabling law – RA 6735 – or the Initiative and Referendum Act.

The Marocharim Experiment calls Congress a “Pantheon of Shame” and elaborates on the implications of the bill's death on Philippine governance.

Free and open Government transactions and the access to records and data is the promise and the premise of clean, honest governance. When cloaked in a shroud of secrecy, and when allowed to operate under a conspiracy of silence, no Government can ever claim to be transparent, open, and clean. When the very system of governance remains closed to the public, when the public is deliberately kept blind from the system that they are supposed to watch, then that system is anything but free.

The Journey Continues sees the hidden hand of the outgoing Arroyo administration.

It’s not long ago when then NEDA Director General Romulo Neri refused to disclose the details of his conversation with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on the matters of the ZTE-NBN controversy invoking “executive privilege.” Evidently, this government don’t want the public to see the skeletons in their closet.

Mon Casiple sees the failure as another example of the Arroyo administration's brazen abuse of power.

Alas, FOI law will not be. And we beheld the classic method by which the Arroyo administration undermined the democratic order by using the latter’s own rules (Constitution, laws, and House rules). The quorum question ranks right up there with the false filing of impeachment against GMA, the redefinition of a “midnight appointment”, short-cutting of procurement rules and regulation, and declaring martial rule through a “state of emergency.”

Life in Gloria's Enchanted Kingdom reposts an investigative story on the skeletons in the closet of House Speaker Nograles, the administration ally instrumental in the death of the bill.

The authors of the aborted bill have since disclosed that Nograles and his allies raised one big objection to the bill: it could be used to review and audit, in a retroactive manner, the deeds and decisions of lawmakers and public officials.

WHAT SECRET or secrets of the House of Representatives under Speaker Prospero Nograles would escape public scrutiny, amid Congress’s failed effort to ratify the Freedom of Information Act last Friday

Rising Sun have reservations on the potentials for misuse and abuse of the proposed Freedom of Information Bill.

How important is the right to information act to the country today?

I’m not too enthusiastic about the passage of the proposed FOIA because it could make things harder for journalists in gathering information. The crucial provisions on disclosure of confidential documents after a certain period of time is also absent. There is also no special provision in the handling of urgent inquiries of journalists who have deadlines to beat.

If ratified, what changes would it bring compared to previous media laws in the country? Were the media laws passed before not enough? Why not?

In my opinion, it provides an enabling law to the constitutional guarantee of freedom of information, which is good for the general public. The practice of the journalism profession, however, may be compromised due to the prescribed waiting period for processing requests for information. Media laws, in this context, are not strengthened and in fact weakened, depending on how the FOIA (once it’s passed into law) will be implemented by the next administration.

Government and Taxes still finds some consolation in the bill's non-passage.

The displeasure of the House leadership, and most likely also the outgoing President of the country, of this bill is clear. Just a few months ago before the recent May 10elections, the House ratified several bills that hurdled the bicameral conf. committee, except the FOI bill.

And as mentioned, this bill has been proposed for the last 14 years until this year. Advanced by a number of civil society groups and media.

This is one example how BIG government is never happy with more transparency and more accountability.

There was one consolation though: a bill creating a new bureaucracy, the “Philippine Tax Academy” was also not ratified today.

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