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FOI’s death linked to foiled Right of Reply bill

Authors of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill on Saturday expressed suspicion that the killing of the measure last Friday due to lack of quorum was part of a "grand script" crafted by the Palace and its allies in response to the demise of the Right of Reply Bill (RORB) in the House of Representatives.
Faced with heavy criticism for the non-ratification of the Freedom of Information Bill, House Speaker Prospero Nograles on Saturday released the names of 139 congressmen who were either absent or were present but did not respond to the roll call "for some unknown reasons." Their absence during roll call resulted in a lack of quorum, which in effect killed the FOI bill as the 14th Congress is now drawing to a close. GMANews.TV highlighted in bold the names of those who were authors or co-authors of the FOI bill but were absent during the roll call. 1. Abaya, Joseph Emilio A. 2. Agbayani, Victor Aguedo E. 3. Agyao, Manuel S. 4. Albano, Rodolfo III T. 5. Alcover Pastor Jr. M 6. Almario, Thelma Z. 7. Alvarez, Antonio C. 8. Amante, Edelmiro A. 9. Amatong, Rommel C. 10. Angping, Maria Zenaida B. 11. Aquino, Jose II S. 12. Arnaiz, George P. 13. Arquiza, Godofredo V. 14. Arroyo, Diosdado M. 15. Arroyo, Ignacio T. 16. Arroyo, Maria Lourdes T. 17. Balindong, Pangalian M. 18. Barzaga, Elpidio Jr. F. 19. Bautista, Franklin P. 20. Bichara, Al Francis C. Click here for the complete list
Lower House Reps. Bienvenido Abante Jr. (Manila) and Lorenzo Tañada III (Quezon) – both co-authors and principal sponsors of the FOI Bill – suspected that Malacañang and its House allies were merely acting out their parts in a "play" designed to defeat the measure. "Naka-script na yan [Everything was scripted]. It's nothing but a play.They are a bunch of hypocrites. They are playing with us," Abante said at a press conference in Quezon City. Akbayan party-list Rep. Walden Bello shared Abante and Tañada's sentiment. "It is nothing but a Hamlet play. This was sabotaged by Malacañang. This is a Malacañang- and House-scripted event," he said. Tañada said there might be a connection between the non-ratification of the FOI Bill and the failure of the RORB in the House, adding that several lawmakers who wanted the latter to be passed might have been disappointed that the right of information bill was already in near-ratification status. "Ang sinasabi siguro nila, 'Kasi hindi niyo sinabay iyong RORB'(They were probably thinking, 'Serves you [FOI supporters] right for not equally supporting the RORB'). They wanted to have these two bills in conjunction," Tañada said, adding that ratifying both could strike a "balance." On one hand, the FOI Bill would give the public easier access to government documents and transactions, obliging public officials to observe greater transparency. On the other, the RORB would also give politicians the right to have their statements on certain issues published, and to make this a mandatory act on the part of media. RORB critics had long said the RORB would be open to abuse by politicians wanting to gain media mileage, especially during election periods such as in recent months. But Abante, who sits as chairman of the House committee on public information that tackled the bill, said his panel was not to blame for the non-passage of the RORB. Abante was among the original sponsors of the RORB, only to withdraw his support later on. Then, he deputized Rep. Rodante Marcoleta (Alagad party-list) to take up discussions regarding the measure. "Hindi namin inupuan iyan (We did not sit on the matter)," Abante insisted. Lawmakers supporting FOI questioned why House Speaker Prospero Nograles did not make an effort to gather all legislators inside the plenary hall last Friday. Tañada said there were more than 140 lawmakers inside the hall before the session started, which was more than the 135 needed to get a quorum. But as the session started, several of Nograles' colleagues began leaving the plenary. Only 128 stayed in the plenary hall, seven members short of a quorum. "In the absence of a quorum, those present can still file a motion for him [Nograles] to gather all lawmakers present inside the [Batasan Pambansa]," Tañada said. "But what did the House Speaker do? Pinagtawanan lang [He just laughed]," the lawmaker added. He blasted Nograles for "washing his hands" off the controversial bill, referring to the text message sent by Nograles to reporters that said: "I did my best, but I guess my best wasn't good enough." Bello said, "Iyong lines nila hindi papasa sa (Those acting lines won't pass muster in a) high school play. It was all like a B-movie script." 'I'm most frustrated' In a statement sent to media on Saturday afternoon, Nograles denied that the non-ratification was intentional.
Speaker Prospero Nograles signals the start of the last session day of the 14th Congress at the House of Representatives on Friday, with lawmakers failing to ratify the Freedom of Information Bill. GMANews.TV
“What 'scripted' are they talking about? Hello? It was in open public transparent session in plenary. That's a very unfair accusation," he said. Nograles also belied claims he did not support the ratification of the measure. He said he even placed the tackling of the FOI bill on top of Friday's priorities, even if it was supposed to have been taken up as the last item based on the prepared agenda. The House Speaker said he even twice delayed the resumption of the session, insisting on returning only to the plenary once a quorum had been assured. “Truth is that I am the most frustrated person out there (in the plenary) because I pushed for that bill. It would never have seen the light of day had I not been its main shepherd," said Nograles, who is also one of the bill's co-authors. He said it all ended up being a numbers game, adding he did not have "the power to control the mind of my fellow congressmen." "I can only persuade them and I don't think that I was remiss on that aspect. It's not my fault that these co-authors decided to be elsewhere because I don't have any magical power to make them appear instantly in the plenary," Nograles said. No hand Malacañang had earlier washed its hands on the issue. Press Undersecretary Rogelio Peyuan expressed hope the measure will be passed in the 15th Congress, as he insisted that the Palace wanted the bill enacted. "Hindi totoo ang mga hinala na may kumpas ng kamay ni President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ang hindi pagpasa sa Freedom of Information Bill," he said in a statement posted on the Office of the Press Secretary website. (It's not true that the President has a hand in the non-passage of the FOI.) Mrs. Arroyo's allies form the majority in the current House of Representatives. Her Lakas-Kampi-CMD also claims to have the majority of members in the incoming House of Representatives — including Mrs. Arroyo herself as Pampanga representative. Non-retroactive In Saturday's press conference, Abante also recounted how Nograles and Majority Floor Leader Arthur Defensor allegedly tried to strike a quid pro quo ("something for something") deal with Abante inside Defensor's office. Abante said Defensor and Nograles gave their assurance of opening the floor for the ratification of the FOI bill, provided that he [Abante] would read out afterward a manifestation which the two had prepared.
Rep. Bienvenido Abante (left) and Rep. Lorenzo Tañada III balmed Malacañang and some of their colleagues for the non-ratification of the Freedom of Information bill, which the two co-authored. Mark D. Merueñas
It turned out that Defensor and Nograles wanted Abante to manifest that the FOI bill should only apply to government officials who would take office after the law is passed, and not include those who served in the past. A part of the manifestation – copies of which Abante distributed to reporters in the press conference – reads as follows: "The FOI Bill falls under the general rule of prospectivity because: (1) there is no provision whatsoever in the bill specifically providing or mandating a retroactive application; and (2) neither is there a definitive provision upon which retroactivity can be necessarily applied." Despite agreeing with his two colleagues, Abante was no longer able to read out the prepared manifestation as the House adjourned without ratifying the bill. Abante said he agreed to read the manifestation because he knew it would not have any effect on the implementation of the FOI measure. An amendment is needed to include the "non-retroactive" clause in the measure, he added. "The plan was maybe to assuage the discomfort of other congressman na retroactive ito... [and] to give a signal to them, na hindi retroactive ito," Abante told GMANews.TV. For his part, Bello said he was interested in knowing who "the Speaker was trying to protect." Constitutional law expert and former law school dean Froilan M. Bacungan said even if a non-retroactive clause was included in the FOI bill, officials who served during the Arroyo administration and before that would still be covered by it – as stated in Article III, Section 7 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution. "The sins of the Arroyo administration were still committed after 1987," Bacungan said. Next president, House Speaker The supporters of the FOI Bill at the House of Representatives assured they will still push through with the measure in the 15th Congress. "This is one of the first things we will file. There's too much popular pressure on this issue. With new members of Congress [in the 15th Congress], I am hoping this will finally become a law," said Bello. Bacungan and the lawmakers expressed confidence presidential front-runner Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III and whoever becomes the next House Speaker would support the re-filing of the FOI Bill.
They urged Aquino, if ever elected as president, to issue an executive order so that certain provisions in the FOI bill could still be implemented. "But that will not take the place of the bill. It will still have to be re-filed," Tañada clarified. For his part, Abante still warned about a looming "force" awaiting supporters of the FOI Bill. "We should also not be confident with the next Congress because of Mrs. Arroyo and her bloc. They will be there to block the passage of the bill," he warned. The lawmakers urged the public and the media to draw up a list of the 180 lawmakers who co-authored and sponsored the FOI Bill, "so they would be reminded that it has to be ratified."— LBG/JV, GMANews.TV