FOI: Advocates pursue new initiative

MANILA, Philippines -- Will the time be ripe for a Freedom of Information law in the 16th Congress? 

One thing's for sure: FOI advocates are not taking any chances this time around. 

After decades of unsuccessful lobbying for an FOI law, they are pursuing a strategy that could serve as a test case for other bills in the future. Instead of merely depending on champions to push for the passage of the bill in Congress, the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition will take the legislative route themselves. 

It might be a lesser-known tactic but it is allowed by the Constitution. On the first day of the 16th Congress on July 1, FOI advocates will file an "indirect initiative" for their version of the FOI bill, dubbed as the "People's FOI Act."

The indirect initiative is a mechanism that allows any "duly accredited people's organization" to file a petition in Congress for a specific measure they want passed. Section 11 of Republic Act 6735 states that an indirect initiative shall be treated like any other bill filed by lawmakers with one vital feature -- it shall have precedence over other pending bills in the committee. 

"This is the first time that [an indirect initiative] will be filed by multiple petitioners," said lawyer Nepomuceno Malaluan, co-convenor of the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition. "This time we are determined to push Congress. One of the elements of the indirect initiative is the committee should give it priority so we will test that."

In the 15th Congress, lawmakers managed to pass historic laws on reproductive health and sin tax but not the FOI. 

Freedom of information laws allow access by the public and the media to information and data related to government projects. 

"Our sense is that in the end, it's a political move and the strength and success of [the indirect initiative] really relies not much on how they will respond but how strong the campaign will be in the 16th Congress," Malaluan said. 

Although the law states that indirect initiatives shall be prioritized at the committee level, petitioners will have no control over the House agenda when the bill reaches the plenary. 

No right of reply

The FOI indirect initiative is a version of the FOI that "embodies the broad level of consensus" among the various stakeholders in government and the private sector, Malaluan said. 

It takes into account the "spirit and letter" of past versions of the bill in the House and Senate, including the bicameral conference report of the 14th Congress, Malacañang's version of the FOI, the FOI bill that was produced by the Public Information Technical Working Group in the 15th Congress and Senate. 

The coalition's version excludes the Right of Reply [ROR] provision, which requires media companies to provide space for government officials and other personalities affected by documents accessed through the FOI act. 

Malaluan said the coalition maintains that ROR is a "killer provision" that seeks to dilute the essence of the FOI bill. 

How will the advocates lobby for support from lawmakers?

While they depended on their champions in the 15th Congress, especially former Quezon Rep Lorenzo "Erin" Tañada to push for the measure, Malaluan said FOI advocates will seek an audience with each lawmaker in the 16th Congress to get their stand on the measure.  

In the 15th Congress, at least 117 out of the 284 lawmakers in the House expressed support for the measure yet it fared worse that it did in the 14th Congress. 

The Freedom of Information Act was only one step away from becoming a law in the 14th Congress under the administration of then president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. House members failed to ratify the bicameral conference report on the bill due to a lack of quorum. - Rappler.com