Sunday, March 30, 2008

RP Freedom Of Information Act Up For Debate, Approval

MANILA, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / Mar. 30, 2008) - Filipino lawmakers have endorsed a bill that would give the public easy access on government information and contracts.

The proposed Freedom of Information Act, House Bill 3732, explicitly mandates all state offices to make available for public scrutiny all information regarding official acts, transactions or decisions, as well as statistics used for policy development, regardless of the format in which the facts are stored or contained.

The 29-member House committee on public information headed by Manila Rep. Bienvenido Abante Jr. has endorsed the bill for floor debate and approval.

Cotabato Rep. Emmylou Mendoza and CIBAC party-list Rep. Joel Villauneva, two of the bill's principal authors, lauded Abante's panel for its prompt action.

"Once enacted, the bill will surely give a whole new meaning to the constitutional right to information, reinforce public accountability and repel malfeasance," Mendoza said. "We are absolutely certain this will go a long way in promoting spotless transparency and improving governance," she said in a statement sent to the Mindanao Examiner.

"We are definitely now counting on the entire House as well as the Senate to give the highest priority to the bill's passage," she added.

The Senate and Malacañang have been wrestling over the executive privilege to withhold supposedly sensitive government information, particularly with respect to the controversial national broadband network (NBN) project and the joint oil exploration accord sealed by the Philippines and China.

The Supreme Court recently upheld the executive privilege when it blocked the Senate from apprehending and compelling Romulo Neri, the erstwhile socio-economic planning secretary, to answer questions on President Macapagal-Arroyo's purported involvement in the NBN project.
The tribunal ruled that the Senate committed "grave abuse of discretion" when it cited Neri in contempt.

Information exempt from the bill's coverage include those declared by the President as "classified," compiled for internal or external defense and law enforcement, obtained by Congress in executive session, on medical and personnel records that may constitute invasion of privacy, and pertaining to current treaty negotiations, among others.

Representatives Joseph Emilio Abaya (Cavite), Juan Edgardo Angara (Aurora), Teodoro Casiño (Bayan Muna), Del de Guzman (Marikina City), Raul del Mar (Cebu), Cinchona Cruz-Gonzales (CIBAC), Risa Hontiveros (Akbayan), Liza Maza (Gabriela) and Lorenzo Tañada III (Quezon) co-authored the bill.

Mendoza said the committee actually limited the executive privilege to withhold sensitive information only in times of war and emergency.

The lawmaker from Mindanao earlier lamented that more than two decades since installation of the 1987 Constitution, "we still do not have a law providing the means for the effective and orderly implementation of provisions concerning the right to information."

The House bill proposes to make possible the efficient execution of the following provisions of the Constitution: Section 7, Article III provides: "The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized. Access to official records, and to documents, and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law."

Section 28, Article II provides: "Subject to reasonable conditions prescribed by law, the State adopts and implements a policy of full public disclosure of all its transactions involving public interest."

Section 22, Article VI provides: "The heads of departments may, upon their own initiative, with the consent of the President, or upon the request of either House, as the rules of each House shall provide, appear before and be heard by such House on any matter pertaining to their departments. Written questions shall be submitted to the President of the Senate or the Speaker of the House of Representatives at least three days before their scheduled appearance."

"Interpellations shall not be limited to written questions, but may cover matters related thereto. When the security of the State or the public interest so requires and the President so states in writing, the appearance shall be conducted in executive session."

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