Senate approves FOI bill on final reading

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Monday, March 10, 2014

MANILA (Updated) -- With a vote of 22-0, the freedom of information (FOI) bill breezed through third and final reading approval in the Senate Monday.

Senator Grace Poe, chairperson of the Senate committee on public information and mass media and sponsor of the bill, noted that the FOI bill has been pending in Congress for the past 21 years and eight months.

Back then, Poe said, citizens demanded access to information on public debts, and data on the status of the land ownership of hacienderos and sakadas in the agrarian reform sector.

Seven Congresses and 44 different versions of the FOI bill after, it remains to be a pending legislation.

Poe said the measure aims to eliminate corruption in the bureaucracy by opening government transactions to the public and holding government officials accountable for their actions.

"We simply need to pass the law. We simply need to be transparent and accountable. We simply need to honor that public service is serving with honesty and integrity. Ang pagsisilbi sa pamahalaan ay serbisyong tunay, paglilingkod na matapat, at pagkilos na marangal," Poe said.

She said studies showed that graft and corruption were minimized in countries with strong FOI law. In the United States for instance, she said, the number of graft convictions nearly doubled in the first three to eight years after the FOI law was strengthened.

According to Poe, 94 nations have already enacted their own FOI legislation while another 53 countries are in the process of ratifying their respective FOI laws.

Under the measure, Poe said, Filipino citizens will have the right to request and be granted access to records or information that is under the control of government unless the information requested would jeopardize national security, foreign relations, law enforcement operations, trade and economic secrets, individual’s right to privacy, privileged information as considered in judicial proceedings or information made in executive sessions of Congress and those that are covered by presidential privilege.

These exemptions however, she said, shall not be used to cover up a crime, wrongdoing, graft or corruption, or other illegal activities.

Once the proposed legislation is enacted into law, Poe said government officials will be required to act and/or comply with the request for information within 15 working days.

Poe said the proposed legislation will cover all government agencies and instrumentalities, including the executive, legislative, judicial branches of government, local governments as well as government-owned- and controlled corporations (GOCCs) and government financial institutions (GFIs).

Poe said government agencies will also be required to upload on their websites the Statements of Assets, Liabilities and New Worth (SALNs) of the President, Vice President, Cabinet members, senators, congressmen, justices of the Supreme Court, members of the constitutional bodies and officers of the Armed Forces and Philippine National Police bearing star ranks, and government officials with salary grade 27 and above and head of agencies.

Likewise, all information pertaining to annual budget, monthly disbursements, IRA utilization, procurement plan, list of the agencies’ vacant positions, items for bidding and its corresponding results, contracts entered into the government with any domestic or foreign entity, bilateral or multilateral treaties, licenses or permits granted to any entity for the extraction of natural resources and loans entered into by the government from any domestic or foreign financial institutions shall be uploaded on the websites, according to Poe.

"Any loan or transaction entered into by any government agency amounting to at least P50 million shall be uploaded in full on the website of the concerned government agency or the Official Gazette online," she said.

Poe said all government agencies will be required to set up their respective FOI-complaint websites within two years after the law takes into effect. Data uploaded in the websites should also be easily understood by the general public.

"Government agencies will use plain language and if possible, translate important information into major Filipino dialects so that people will be able to appreciate the information better. Dapat madaling maintindihan ang mga data at impormasyon," she stressed.

Poe said government officers who violate the FOI Act will be criminally and administratively liable with penalties ranging from suspension or dismissal from service to imprisonment of not less one month but not more than six months.

Curb corruption

Senate President Franklin Drilon welcomed the development, saying it will "enable the public to take a significant part in curbing corruption in Philippine bureaucracy."

He said the FOI bill will encourage the people to take active participation in the governance process, as the measure will introduce new levels of accountability in every aspect of our country's public service, opening it to increased public scrutiny.

"The disclosure of government actions under the FOI bill will be a crucial and effective deterrent against possible malfeasance and corrupt practices by those in power. The proposed legislation is our way of acknowledging that the people’s eye is the most potent tool against corruption in our government," Drilon said.

In the House, the technical working group (TWG) for the FOI bill on Monday adjourned its meeting without producing a consolidated bill.

Committee on public information chairperson Representative Jorge Almonte said the lengthy discussions of the TWG are part of the necessary steps the measure should pass through before it hurdles the committee level.

"We're just trying to work in accordance with the House rules. What we hope to craft is a law that will represent the consensus of the majority of the House, as well as the Senate," Almonte said.

Consolidated version

He said the TWG might come up with the consolidated version of the FOI bill in May, when the House resumes its session after the Lenten break.

But he said he cannot control until when the deliberations will last because each lawmaker might want to discuss the bill in detail.

"I cannot divine as to what extent the discussion will be. I can't prevent these congressmen from discussing the bill," Almonte said.

The lawmaker said discussions on the bill will likely move at a faster pace once members of the TWG finish deliberations on Section 7.

The House of Representatives needs to pass its own version of the FOI bill before both chambers of Congress can sit down and reconcile the conflicting provisions in a bicameral conference committee.

Only after the bicameral committee report is ratified can the FOI bill be submitted to President Benigno Aquino III for his signature.

Senate Majority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano said it is now up to the House of Representatives to do its part and pass the landmark bill.

"The House, the Senate, and Malacanang should be partners in promoting transparency in the country. Enacting the FOI measure into law is a good first step in regaining the people's trust in the three branches of the government," Cayetano said.

The FOI bill will allow every Filipino citizen to request and be granted access to any record or information that is under the control of the government, subject to reasonable exceptions.

The measure shall likewise require the mandatory posting by government agencies in their official websites of the statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) of officials with salary grade 27 or higher. (With Camille P. Balagtas/John Carlo Cahinhinan/Sunnex)

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