House panel adopts Palace suggestions on FOI Bill

Posted at 03/22/2014 10:21 AM | Updated as of 03/22/2014 10:21 AM

MANILA, Philippines - Authors of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill in the House of Representatives yesterday said they have adopted the suggestions of Malacañang on the measure to speed up passage of the landmark legislation.

The lawmakers said the concerns of President Aquino were addressed in House Bill 3237 filed by Camarines Sur Rep. Maria Leonor Robredo and Deputy Speaker Henedina Abad (Batanes).

A committee of the technical working group (TWG) is consolidating the bill with the other FOI measures.

Among the lawmakers who have filed similar bills are Reps. Emmeline Aglipay (DIWA party-list), Arlene Bag-ao (Dinagat Islands), Teddy Baguilat (Ifugao), Walden Bello (Akbayan party-list), Winston Castelo (Quezon City), Barry Gutierrez (Akbayan party-list), Leah Paquiz (Ang Nars party-list), Gustavo Tambunting (Parañaque City), and Marcelino Teodoro (Marikina City).

Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. earlier said the FOI bill would be passed within the term of the 16th Congress. Undersecretary Manuel Quezon III of the Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office (PCDSPO) explained Malacañang’s position before the TWG of the House committee on public information meeting held last March 10.

Aglipay said she examined HB 3237 and the 15th Congress’ Committee report version, which is the template the committee is using for the TWG’s consolidation of the FOI bills filed before the 16th Congress. “Except for the differences in the order of provisions and a few distinct provisions, the bill endorsed by Malacañang and the template reference bill are identical in most provisions, and substantially the same,” Aglipay said.

While the TWG is still deliberating on every provision of the bill, Bag-ao added it was clear from Quezon’s remarks that the TWG’s reference bill and the versions of Robredo and Abad have both covered the concerns of the President and other government agencies on the national security exception; executive privilege; administrative offense for violators; list of documents required to be posted on the website, and clarifications on exemptions.

“We have attained a level of agreement with the executive that was not there during the past Congresses. It is important that we are in unison and the communication remains open. We hope this will continue until we hurdle the plenary debates,” Bag-ao said.

At the TWG meeting, Aglipay enumerated key amendments introduced by the Malacañang version, which was confirmed by Quezon to be a faithful summary of their amendments: the inclusion of the phrase “national security” in exception 1, thereby providing the executive greater flexibility than the bicameral conference version that confined national security matters to defense and foreign affairs.

This addresses the concern expressed by President Aquino over the adequacy of the protection of national security matters.

The introduction of a new exception, more popularly referred to as executive privilege, addresses Aquino’s concern over access to free and frank opinion and discussion with his closest advisers. Malacañang expanded the list of documents for mandatory disclosure by including the documents required by Department of Budget and Management, and also some by Department of the Interior and Local Government, for website posting by agencies and local governments.

In addition, it also included the statements of assets, liabilities and net worth in the list for mandatory posting in government websites.

To address the bureaucracy’s concern over the gravity of penalties, a number of criminal offenses were reclassified as administrative offenses. The defense of good faith was also introduced.

To balance the advocates’ concerns over potential abuse of exceptions and criticisms of “watering down,” the safeguards were further strengthened.

In addition to the legal presumption in favor of access, the following additional safeguards on the exceptions were agreed on: the exceptions shall be strictly construed; exceptions cannot be invoked to cover up a crime, wrongdoing, graft, or corruption; and the President, the Supreme Court, the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the constitutional commissions may waive an exception with respect to information in the custody of offices under their respective supervision or control, when they deem that there is a compelling or overriding public interest in disclosure.

All these proposals by the executive were adopted in the TWG reference bill in the House and in the recently approved bill in the Senate.

“We are hopeful that with closer legislative and executive cooperation, we can expect the realization of the long-awaited FOI law before the end of this administration,” Bag-ao said.