Legacy or Ignominy: Will Speaker Nograles and his House ratify the Freedom of Information Bill?

Today, the Freedom of Information Act hangs on the precipice, and the leaders of the House, on the threshold of either making history or being cast aside to its dustbin.

by The Right to Know. Right Now! Coalition

When the leaders of the House of Representatives want a measure passed, we have seen them find a way. But when they want a measure aborted, they simply stay away and quibble about the absence of quorum.

For 14 years, the 160 member-organizations of the Right to Know. Right Now! Coalition have waged, separately and together, an advocacy campaign for the passage of the Freedom of Information Act. We have done so in good faith, in the most positive and trustful manner, and with all due respect to the members of Congress who swore to serve the people, by the Constitution and the laws of the land.

Even now, we thank Speaker Prospero Nograles Jr., the legislators who authored and passed the Freedom of Information Act, and all the members of the 14th Congress, for taking the bill to its farthest, an accomplishment that previous Congresses had all failed to achieve.

Today, the Freedom of Information Act hangs on the precipice, and the leaders of the House, on the threshold of either making history or being cast aside to its dustbin.

In the last two weeks, the people have been offered promise after promise to ratify the Fredom of Information Act.

  • On February 2, 2010, copies of the Bicameral Conference Committee Report on the FOI scheduled for distribution to the House members suddenly went missing at the session hall.
  • On February 3, the House Floorleader, after moving to defer the calling of the roll, proceeded to secure the House members’ concurrence vote for no less than 15 Senate bills, and one conference committee report. However, the FOI conference committee report was conveniently left out. A congressman who sought a copy of the FOI Act was told by House officials that the instruction from the office of the House Secretary General was to “hold distribution” of the copies that day, the last day before the Congress adjourned for the election campaign season.
  • On May 24, the House leadership implored proponents of the bill to withdraw their motion to ratify the conference committee report after the Speaker and the Majority and Minority leaders declared their commitment to enroll it on the agenda of the House on May 31.
  • But on May 31, Speaker Nograles opened the session and the Majority Floorleader moved to suspend session until June 4, for the closing of the 14th Congress. In 10 seconds flat, they opened and closed the session, ignoring motions from proponents of the bill to ratify the FOI Act. The proponents led by Manila Rep. Bienvenido M. Abante Jr., chair of the House committee on public information, had wanted to raise a point of order but the House leaders simply ignored them. In truth, the proponents were muzzled and gagged – the microphones on the floor were turned off.

The fate of the Freedom of Information Act is in peril of being hostage to the whims and fancies of the House leadership. In media interviews, Speaker Nograles has declared that the FOI Act – or what he calls “the foie gras bill” that he, in fact, co-authored – remains “my priority” and that the House will take it up today, supposedly the last session day of the 14th Congress.

Today, the truth or falsity of his avowed commitment to ratify the Freedom of Information Act, will be known.  He can yet prove skeptics wrong.

If the Speaker chooses not to live up to his commitment, the Freedom of Information Act dies today; if he proves true to his words, it will live and be ratified, at last.

And well it should. The right to know is an inalienable right of the people that has been firmly guaranteed by the Constitution since 23 years ago. Enshrined in the Bill of Rights, it is indispensable to the exercise of the right of the people and their organizations to effective and reasonable participation at all levels of social, economic and political decision-making.

The Freedom of Information Act fills the legal gaps that have made our constitutional right to information practically inoperable. It provides standard and definite procedures in dealing with requests for information. It clearly defines a narrow list of exceptions, carefully balancing the public interest in securing the widest availability of information while recognizing the public interest in withholding certain information identified in the bill. It secures for citizens concurrent remedies in cases of denial of access to information.

Where a denial is illegal, the citizen concerned may also file the appropriate criminal or administrative complaint. It provides for the public disclosure, without need of request from anyone, of important government transactions. It introduces numerous mechanisms for the active promotion of openness in government.

The Filipino people need and truly deserve this law. It is a demand of the times, a vote for transparency, democratic participation, accountability and good governance. It will empower both the people and their leaders to plant the seeds of strategic governance reforms and start the process of renewal for Philippine institutions.

We take this opportunity to thank Senators Alan Peter Cayetano and Juan Miguel Zubiri for shepherding the bill through the tedious legislative process in the Senate.

We express most especially our gratitude and salute to Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile for leading the Senators in completing the necessary Senate actions for the passage of the Freedom of Information Act. The Senate was in turmoil at the time when the session was about to adjourn in February, yet still it managed to fulfill its legislative commitments.

Last May 31, the Senate passed a resolution urging the House of Representatives to act on the FOI Act conference committee report before the 14th Congress adjourns sine die. This is clear testimony to the leadership of Senate President Enrile and the sense of duty to people and country of our Senators.

Today, we ask that Speaker Nograles and the House members show proof that they measure up to the same standards. Indeed today, by their choices they will be judged. And they have only two: Legacy or Ignominy.

They have now a historic opportunity to fulfill their constitutional duty to provide an essential law that will secure for the nation the full functioning of their constituents’ right to information.

Recognizing that the duty of the state to enforce a policy of full disclosure of all its transactions involving public interest is the hallmark of good governance, there are already more than 80 governments around the world that have adopted a Freedom of Information Act. The passage today of the Freedom of Information Act would be a testament to our maturity as a nation, which is vaunted to be the exemplar of democracy in Asia.

The people of the Philippines are claiming their constitutional right to access to information on matters of public concern. The bicameral conference committee has reconciled the House and Senate versions of the FOI bill. There should be no obstacle to ratifying this bill.

Today, Speaker Nograles and his House will face the judgment of history. Will they be judged as a Congress with a legacy of honor or of ignominy?

In truth, for reasons other than the public interest, they can delay the Freedom of Information Act but not ever defeat it. The people’s right to know springs forth from our democracy; it will endure.

Right to Know. Right Now!

Author: Franz Jonathan G. de la Fuente (TNP)

Unwell–Matchbox Twenty ought to credit me.

  • While passing the FOI Act will not erase the string of human rights and media abuses done during Arroyo’s term, this administration will do our country a great service by getting this act together.

    Is TNP a member of the Right to Know Right Now?