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COMMENTARY: Freedom of Information Bill: in its death throes?  

Some say that the president’s not mentioning the Freedom of Information Bill as a priority during his last State of the Nation address last Monday was the nail in the coffin of this piece of legislation.  I may not agree 100 per cent with this assessment (since miracles do happen), but I certainly think that we were closer to clinching the FOI during the last day of the 14th Congress, until then Speaker Prospero Nograles pulled the plug by having his people question the quorum moments before the scheduled ratification of the bicameral report.

In the 15th Congress, we did get the bill to second reading in the last days of that assembly, but the House leadership ensured that our leader then-Representative Erin Tanada,  Representative Teddy Baguilat, and I spoke to a near empty chamber in a pro forma show of hearing the bill before assigning it to the archives.

A Case of History Repeating Itself?

Today, during the 16th Congress, the House Committee on Public Information has approved the bill, and the Committee Chairman, Rep. Jorge Almonte, has come out publicly in strong support of it.   Speaker Sonny Belmonte has periodically stated that he will make sure FOI passes before the end of the 16th Congress.

However, action speaks louder than words. The congressional advocates know that the Speaker and House Majority Leader Boyet Gonzalez were none too happy that the bill sailed through committee without their go signal to Almonte.  More telling is the fact that despite the fact that the bill was approved by the Committee nearly nine months ago, it still has to be scheduled for second reading. 

It’s getting really, really late.  There are already a number of controversial bills competing for passage in August, the main ones being the Bangsa Moro Basic Law, the Anti-Dynasty Bill, and the Speaker’s pet project, the Charter Change Resolution to eventually do away with the nationalist provisions of the 1987 Constitution. September to early November will be devoted almost exclusively to the budgetary appropriations process, leaving the extremely short period from mid-November to the mid-December for priority legislation.  After that the House disbands for the elections.

Essentially what we are looking at is, at best, another pro forma sponsorship of FOI for second reading before its being interred, just like in the 15th Congress.

Malacanang’s Double Game

The problem, however, lies not with Belmonte but with Malacanang.  As everyone in the House knows, Belmonte is a pliant ally of the president, and whatever may be his public statements, if Malacanang does not want a bill, it won’t go through. Thus, Aquino’s silence on FOI last Monday spoke volumes to Belmonte and other members of Congress.

During both the 15th and 16th Congresses, Malacanang tried to waylay the advocates by playing a double game. On the one hand, it would send Undersecretary Manuel L. Quezon III to assure them that Malacanang was willing to assist in framing a law that it could support.  On the other hand, other emissaries would float the word that the president had major problems with the bill, giving ammunition to opponents of the bill. 

In both Congresses, advocates bent over backwards to accommodate Malacanang’s legitimate national security concerns while ensuring that there would be no blocks to full transparency.  In both Congresses, Malacanang’s representatives registered no objections to the versions that finally passed the Committee.

What has prevented people like Belmonte and Aquino from following through on their promises to pass FOI?

I think their strong hesitation stems from the generalized fear of many politicians that the legislated transparency of FOI may work against them in some undefined way at some point. In the case of the House leadership, it is probably a case of generalized fear. In the case of President Aquino, however, it is probably more than generalized fear. It probably stems from his desire to prevent access to documents and other material that may give him an image different from that he wants to leave behind, if not make him and some of his subordinates vulnerable to criminal and civil charges for felonious deeds committed while in office.
Keeping DAP and Mamasapano in the Shadows?

I have in mind two in particular, the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) slush fund and the Mamasapano raid. 

On the first, there might be the strong concern that documents might show Aquino to be more than an innocent, “legally challenged,” superior who signed off on “clever” Secretary Butch Abad’s reckless and unconstitutional initiatives. 

On the second, FOI-enabled transparency might shed light on critical unanswered questions regarding his interaction with Washington in planning the raid and his decision to place suspended National Police Chief Alan Purisima in charge of the operation while keeping out of the loop not only Acting PNP Chief Leonardo Espina but also his all but anointed successor, DILG head Mar Roxas, whom he painted in the SONA as someone he could fully trust.

My experience as an advocate and author of FOI, as well as of other bills, has impressed on me several lessons about the legislative dynamics in the House of Represenratives, foremost of which are two: One, if the president wants something badly enough, he can get it from Congress. Two, if the people want something badly but the president does not want it, it will not pass, whatever the House leadership might be saying in public.

Walden Bello is one of the authors of the Freedom of Information Bill who was, until March 19 of this year, a member of the House of Representatives.
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