The Freedom of Information (FOI) bill has been stuck in Congress for more than three decades despite calls from media and advocacy groups to uphold transparency in the government.
First filed in 1992, the FOI bill seeks to protect people’s right to information and combat graft and corruption by mandating easy access to public documents.
The proposed act has made progress in the legislative mill multiple times, only to be refiled by the next Congress as lawmakers failed to submit it to Malacañang.
The FOI bill was often stalled in the House of Representatives because of concerns that it may be used to “damage the reputations of public officials.”
Lawmakers also cited having “other priorities” to explain their inaction which left the bill hanging in different stages of the legislative process throughout the years.
The current situation reveals that current and past administrations have shown little commitment for transparency and accountability, according to associate professor Danilo Arao from UP Diliman’s Department of Journalism.
Amid disinformation efforts and attacks against the press, Arao also stressed the urgent need for an FOI law.
“The FOI bill, in the eyes of the powers that be, is counterproductive to historical denialism and red tagging. [With FOI] it would be more convenient for the media and ordinary people to expose fake news,” he said in an interview with Tinig ng Plaridel.
He added that “FOI is not meant solely for journalists, it’s for the general public. Information should be digestible, understandable… That’s something we don’t have.”
Here is a rundown of the developments regarding the FOI bill, tracing back to its initial filing in 1992.
August 31, 1992: Former Pangasinan first district representative Oscar Orbos files the first ever FOI in Congress. It was known as House Bill (HB) 1805 or the Freedom of Information Act of 1992, mandating government officials to provide access to information within 15 days after a request is made.
1998 – 2001
1998 – 2001: In the 11th Congress, the House approves a Right to Information bill after its third reading. However, a counterpart measure in the Senate did not follow through.
January 2004: A total of six Right to Information bills are refiled under the House Committee on Public Information in the 12th Congress. These, however, were bypassed due to concerns that they may be used to “besmirch reputations” and spread “black propaganda.”
April 2008: The nine FOI bills in the 14th Congress are replaced by a single House measure: HB 3732, an act implementing the right of access to information on matters of public concern.
April 30, 2008: The House approves HB 3732 in its second reading.
May 12, 2008: HB 3732 hurdles the House’s third reading, with 197 out of 220 legislators voting in favor of the measure.
June 3, 2009: The Senate Committee on Public Information files its own version of the FOI bill known as the “Freedom of Information Act of 2009.”
December 7, 2009: The FOI bill passes the second hearing in the Senate.
December 14, 2009: The Senate approves the FOI bill after its third and final reading. This was the farthest the FOI bill had come in the legislative process.
February 3, 2010: In the bicameral committee stage, only the Senate approves the FOI bill. The House failed to decide on the bill because legislators did not reach a quorum on its last session day.
A legislative bill has to move past the bicameral committee stage before arriving at the president’s lap for approval.
Rep. Lorenzo Tañada III from Quezon province, a co-author and principal sponsor of the bill, believed that the non-passage of FOI is linked to the contentious Right of Reply Bill (RORB). He claimed that most lawmakers wanted the two bills passed together to create “balance.”
The RORB would compel media outfits to give equal airtime or space to public officials criticized in previous reports.
With these contentions, the FOI bill reached a deadlock in the 14th Congress.
May 31, 2010: Despite their commitment to discuss the FOI bill again, lawmakers fail to do so as House Speaker Prospero Nograles moves to suspend the session immediately. Microphones in the plenary hall are also turned off, leading to the non-recognition of motions from the proponents of the FOI bill.
June – July 2010: Then-President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III vows to prioritize the FOI Bill under his administration. However, in his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) as the president, Aquino does not mention the said measure in his legislative agenda.
February 28, 2011: The FOI measure is excluded from Aquino’s priority bills when he convened the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council. This was due to “sensitive” concerns that needed to be addressed.
August 6, 2012: Less than a year before the 15th Congress adjourned, the FOI bill remains pending approval at the committee level.
September 2012: Former House majority leader Neptali Gonzales II claims that many lawmakers refuse to pass the FOI bill, fearing that it may be “weaponized against them.”
March 10, 2014: In the 16th Congress, the Senate unanimously approves the FOI bill on its final reading. Despite this, the measure is stalled again in the House.
Aquino says the FOI bill does not involve an “emergency situation” that requires its immediate passage.
The bill languished in the legislative mill until Aquino stepped down as president. It remained in the House Committee on Rules due again to the absence of the contentious “right of reply” provision.
July 23, 2016: In the absence of an FOI law, Former president Rodrigo Duterte signs Executive Order No. 2, mandating all national government agencies under the executive branch to give public access to government records.
This, however, excludes the legislative and judicial departments.
July 26, 2016: Several legislators refile their versions of the FOI bill in the 17th Congress.
June 17, 2017: Senator Grace Poe, chairperson of the Senate Public Information and Mass Media Committee, reports that the FOI bill was slow in its legislative track due to the prioritization of other proposals in the 17th Congress.
July 2018: Two years into Duterte’s presidency, the House version of the FOI bill remains stuck at the committee level, while the Senate version only reached the pre-second reading deliberations at the plenary.
April 30, 2019: Duterte disobeys his own FOI policy when he did not release his Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) on the set deadline. It was the first time in 30 years that a president did not reveal their SALN.
Duterte’s wealth remained secret until the end of his term.
July 1, 2019: After being left in limbo, the FOI bill is among the first measures refiled in the 18th Congress.
July 24 – August 14, 2019: The Senate FOI bills of Poe, Kiko Pangilinan, Sonny Angara, Pia Cayetano, Joel Villanueva and Risa Hontiveros are left pending on the committee level after approval on the first reading.
July 8, 2020: Sen. Angara refiles the FOI Bill in the Upper Chamber. However, it was also left hanging on the committee level.
June 30, 2022: As one of his first actions, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. orders the transfer of the FOI Project Management Office to the Philippine Information Agency. This made all FOI programs within the executive branch under the “direct supervision” of his office.
July 7 – August 8, 2022: Senators Poe, Villanueva, Angara and Bong Revilla refile the FOI bill in the 19th Congress. The last update on these measures was their referral to the committee on public information and mass media.
July 25, 2022: The FOI bill is not included in Marcos Jr.’s priority measures in his maiden SONA.
March 17, 2023: In a memorandum, Marcos Jr. adds more exceptions to the list of accessible information provided in Duterte’s EO No.2.
Among the declared exclusions from FOI was the list of suspected terrorists and any information related to the investigations of the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission — the agency tasked to recover the Marcoses’ ill-gotten wealth.
The exceptions also include personal information like birth records, school records and medical documents, among others.
June 19, 2023: In his speech at the 14th edition in the International Conference of Information Commissioners, President Marcos Jr. vows to uphold the public’s freedom of information, emphasizing that “fake news has no place in modern society.”
In a response statement, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) urges the Marcos administration to certify the FOI bill as “urgent.”
“The Freedom of Information executive order, despite the exceptions on access to certain documents, signed in 2016 was a welcome step in the direction of openness. The Marcos Jr. administration can go further by certifying passage of a Freedom of Information law as urgent and necessary,” NUJP asserted.
July 10, 2023: Sen. Robinhood Padilla, chairperson of the Committee on Public Information and Mass Media, conducts a hearing on the FOI bill amongst other proposed measures.
July 24, 2023: In his second SONA, Marcos Jr. excludes the FOI bill in his priority bills once more.
As of writing, this is the latest status of the FOI bill under Marcos Jr.’s administration and his supermajority in Congress.