Lawyers: Aquino not sincere in pushing for FOI

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Friday, May 16, 2014

DESPITE its recent pronouncements, the Aquino government is not really keen on passing the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill anytime soon, two lawyers said Thursday.

Lawyers Prima Jesusa Quinsayas and Carlos Zarate, who is also a Bayan Muna party-list representative, both agreed that what Malacañang actually did was just to ‘water down’ the FOI bill.

Quinsayas is one of the legal counsels representing the families of some 32 media practitioners who were killed in Sitio Masalay, Barangay Salman, Ampatuan town, Maguindanao on Nov. 23, 2009, which was allegedly masterminded and carried out by a few members of the Ampatuan clan.


In a separate interview, Quinsayas said she doubts that the Palace is sincere in its support for the enactment of the FOI bill.

“For me, it’s just a personal reaction lang on Obama’s visit, eh. I haven’t heard that the President himself is pushing it to become a law in 2015,” Quinsayas told this paper by phone Thursday.

“The Senate has a version of it (bill), but unfortunately, in the House of Representatives, clogged pa ‘dun eh because it has its own version of it. The problem there is that it is ‘watered down’ or cannot stand on its own. After the HOP, the bill will go to the bicameral committee and they will have their own version too,” she added.

Quinsayas said both the people and the press will stand for the passage of the FOI into a law.

“[The bill] assures journalists and the common tao that the information will be made available with proper parameters. The existing law says that once you write to a particular government agency, it’ll take 15 days for the agency to reply to whatever queries or complaints you have. For journalists, corroborating information in that way will be very frustrating. The bill shortens the period,” she said.

She added that the bill will “facilitate a more transparent good governance” citing the outcome of the non-transparency prevalent today like the Priority Development Assistance Fund (Pdaf) or pork barrel scam.

"If FOI Bill becomes a law, the people can demand government reports, activities and incidents," she said.

For his part, Zarate thinks that the support of the Palace is not even a support because of exceptions they wanted included in the bill.

"Malayo eh. Hindi 'yan siya FOI bill if maraming exceptions kasi mawawalan ng saysay ang pagka-FOI niya," Zarate said.

Zarate is dismayed by the fact that "the people who supported the removal of the Executive Privilege on the controversial NBN-ZTE deal during Gloria Arroyo's term, are now proposing for exceptions of the FOI bill.

Si PNoy, he won because of his whole-hardheartedness support of the freedom of information, ngayon, malamig na siya eh," he furthered.
He added that the FOI bill, if it becomes a law, "will truly embody transparency and accountability with no exceptions."

Zarate, however, fears that if the FOI with various exceptions will become a law, "mahina 'yan at walang ngipin to prevent corruption, among others."

"Kaya ngayon, sa House of Representatives at sa Bayan Muna mismo, ipanaglalaban talaga namin ang katotohanan," he said.

Meanwhile, an article posted by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) on its website Thursday, reported that “half or the Congress has already done its part for the Freedom of Information bill, with the Senate passing Senate Bill 1733 or the People’s FOI Act on March 10 this year.”

“The other half, however, is still waffling around in the House of Representatives, while congressmen decide if they want to empower citizens and media with the right to demand information from government – including from them,” the report said.

On Wednesday, the Right to Know Right Now! Network and affiliated groups launched an online signature campaign to press President Benigno S. Aquino III and Speaker Feliciano Belmonte to ensure the passage of the FOI bill in the 16th Congress, it said.

“Still, FOI advocates acknowledge the importance of having people informed of the contents of the FOI bills, both the version passed by the Senate and the one being considered by the House,” the report added.

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on May 16, 2014.

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