FOI is 'dead'

MANILA, Philippines - The Freedom of Information (FOI) bill failed to hurdle the House committee on public information Tuesday, November 13, after a lengthy debate on minor procedural matters.

"It's going to be a crawl to the finish line and I don't think we can crawl as fast we want," said Deputy Speaker Lorenzo "Erin" Tañada, one of the principal authors of the bill.

After almost two hours of discussions on the bill within a jampacked room, Committee Chairman Rep Ben Evardone moved to adjourn the hearing on the controversial bill on November 27, 2012. 

The Right to Know Right Now! Coalition, members of which were present during the hearing, said that the bill is now dead in the 15th Congress.

"What happened today was just the final blow delivered by Evardone and Antonino, which left the rest of the committee members uncannily helpless to stop the slaughter of the FOI," their statement read.

"The FOI bill is dead, actually murdered in its tracks. Its butchers? The lackadaisical Evardone. The mindlessly perorating Antonino. The President and his flaccid support. [Speaker Feliciano] Belmonte, [Majority Floorleader Neptali] Gonzalez, and the Liberal Party leaders of the House, by propping and blessing Evardone’s duplicity on the FOI bill," they added.  

The bill aims to make the bureaucracy more transparent and compels government agencies to provide the public with documents on matters related to public interest. President Benigno Aquino III earlier vowed to push for its approval, but changed his mind.

Tuesday's meeting was only the second committee meeting for the year after the last meeting in March. 

Tañada said he was disappointed with the way Evardone handled the committee hearing. 

Evardone had earlier suspended a committee hearing on the bill over the lack of an available room in the House. 

FOI came close to becoming a law in the 14th Congress when the bicameral conference committee came up with a version but due to the lack of a quorum, the House failed to vote on the bill.

Should the scheduled committee hearing push through on November 27, Congress only has 18 working days left to approve the bill before it adjourns for the Christmas break on December 21. 

Delaying tactics?

FOI was the last bill discussed in the hearing.

The committee first discussed the bill proposing to declare Filipino sign language as the national sign language, which lasted about 45 minutes, and then moved on to approve the proposal to declare November 23, the anniversary of the Maguindanao Massacre, as Press Freedom Day. 

When lawmakers finally started tackling the bill, most of the remaining time was spent discussing Nueva Ecija Rep Rodolfo Antonino's question on why his Right of Reply bill, which would require media outfits to air the side of officials, was not included in the discussions of the Technical Working Group on the FOI Act. 

Tañada blamed the committee chairman's failure to schedule committee hearings. 

"Maybe the crux of the problem is the failure to call to conduct committee hearings in 2011. If there were hearings, Antonino's bill could have been referred to the technical working group," he said. 

After more than an hour of discussions, Akbayan Rep Walden Bello moved to put the consolidated bill into a vote. Cagayan Rep Rufus Rodriguez seconded the motion but Evardone opposed it, saying that the committee cannot move to vote on the bill because there are still pending issues. 

Antonino agreed with Evardone and moved for the session's adjournment.

Tañada moved to extend the hearing but Evardone said that they had no permission from the House secretariat to do so.

Committee members argued over the fact that a motion to vote had already been raised, leaving the committee chairman to decide on whether the motion to vote should be granted or the hearing should be adjourned.

With the decision on the outcome of the hearing in his hands, Evardone left the room for about 5 minutes. In the end, the committee chairman decided to adjourn the meeting. 

'Battery, assault'

The coalition said "the battery and assault on FOI" was led by President Aquino's lack of political will over the bill, followed by the lack of action from his Liberal Party allies in the House, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte and Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales III. 

"In January 2012, at the height of the Corona impeachment trial, he all too suddenly endorsed the bill, albeit in a few perfunctory press statements only. But in the next eight months, nothing more was heard from him by way of real proof of endorsement of the bill," they said. 

Tañada offered a glimmer of hope, saying that he will still wait for what happens in the November 27 hearing. 

"But if the bill moves beyond November, good luck na lang sa 16th Congress," he said. Rappler.com