FOI hurdles House committee

MANILA, Philippines (Updated) - With a 17-3 vote and one abstention, the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill hurdled the committee level in the House of Representatives Tuesday, November 27.

As what House committee on public information chairman Rep Ben Evardone said last week, the consolidated bill was put to a vote despite objections from lawmakers who wanted to insert a Right of Reply (ROR) provision and other safeguards into the measure.

Quezon Rep Erin Tañada, one of the main proponents of the bill, welcomed the approval with caution.

"Total victory is when the FOI bill is enacted into law," he said. 

With only 11 session days left before Congress goes on a Christmas break, the FOI bill, which seeks to guarantee fast access to documents of public interest, faces rough sailing in the chamber. When the bill failed to be voted on during the November 13 committee hearing, The Right to Know Right Now! Coalition declared the bill as "dead" in the 15th Congress.

Tañada earlier said the bill has to be approved by the House and the Senate on third reading before December. There is only less than 4 weeks left before Congress pauses for the Christmas break and lawmakers will only hold session for 3 weeks when they go back on January 21 before pausing for the campaign period of the 2013 elections again.

Meanwhile, the Senate version of the bill is already in the plenary.

Half-baked?

Discussions on whether a pending motion to vote on the bill would stand dominated the first part of discussions.

The main issue, according to Evardone, was whether the body should tackle amendments first or proceed to adopt the consolidated bill, a move that would close discussions over amendments at the committee level. 

During the last committee hearing, Akbayan Rep Walden Bello raised a motion to vote on the bill, which was seconded by Cagayan Rep Rufus Rodriguez.

Antonino said that the motion was not duly seconded because Rodriguez was not a member of the committee. Evardone then said that the matter could be easily settled by casting another motion to put the bill to a vote. The matter was settled when Ifugao Rep Teddy Baguilat said that although Rodriguez was not a member of the committee, other members also seconded the motion. 

Antonino, who has been pushing for the inclusion of an ROR provision, is a known opponent of the measure. 

To appease Antonino, Bayan Muna Rep Teddy Casiño early on in the hearing proposed to give him time to "ventilate" his objections, a move that was agreed upon by San Juan Rep JV Ejercito later in the hearing. 

Antonino said that the bill was "railroaded" because the technical working group (TWG) that worked on the substitute bill failed to discuss the contentious issues raised by its opponents, including his Right of Reply proposal. 

Tañada however said that the ROR provision was never referred to the TWG for consideration because Antonino's version of the FOI bill, which included a Right of Reply, was filed after the TWG was convened. 

According to Evardone, some of the contentious issues that the consolidated FOI bill failed to include were: the Right of Reply provision, safeguards against abusing the FOI, the definition of national security and the inclusion of private entities. But Evardone himself was aware that delaying the vote would effectively kill the bill. 

"If the motion of Cong. Bello loses, that would mean that the FOI is also dead," he said. 

FOI proponents however said that proposed amendments can still be tackled when the bill goes into the period of amendments in plenary. 

Right of Reply

To explain why he has been insisting on including the Right of Reply provision in the Freedom of Information Bill, Antonino said that requiring the media to publish both sides of the story would help minimize media corruption.

ROR mandates media outfits to air the side of public officials and other individuals who will be affected by documents retrieved through FOI. Advocates of the FOI bill have slammed the measure as oppressive, saying that it curtails press freedom. 

Citing a speech of Philippine Daily Inquirer President Sandy Prieto-Romualdez in the recently-concluded Media Nation forum, where she relayed how "frustrating it was" to deal with corruption in the media, Antonino said that the Right of Reply provision only seeks to ensure that data obtained from the FOI Act would be used responsibly.

"ROR is not an evil. It is something that we can use to proper use. Those in media that already publish responsible journalism are not covered by this provision. When you put out a report that contains both sides of an issue, this provision does not apply to you. It only applies to those members of media that i would call irresponsible and corrupt."

Casiño, on the other hand, said that libel and defamation laws are already in place in case of abuse by the media.

In the end, the committee voted to approve FOI without the right of reply provision.

Breakdown of votes

The following are the lawmakers who voted to adopt the consolidated FOI bill on committee level:

The 3 solons who voted against the bill are:

Villarosa and Mercado-Revila both said they also wanted to an ROR provision in the bill.

Alagad party-list Rep Rodante Marcoleta abstained. - Rappler.com