Pass the People’s FOI Bill now!

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Monday, June 30, 2014


IN EXACTLY 24 months, the Aquino administration that came to power on a "Social Contract with the Filipino People" will come to a close. Its trademark shibboleth:

“Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap.” Its path to governance: Daang Matuwid.

Today, we hear less and less of official statements peppered with the same prose. And yet, as the Aquino administration enters its twilight years, the Filipino people's disaffection with unabated corruption in high places and jobless growth continues to rise.

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In recent weeks, plunder and graft cases have been filed against some senators and congressmen mostly associated with the political opposition, for alleged misuse and abuse of pork barrel monies.

A few other lawmakers allied with the administration had also been implicated but the investigators have shown much less vigor and spunk in running after them.

What is wrong with this story? A big missing link -- a Freedom of Information Act that will affirm with absolute certitude that the long arm of the law will snare all the crooks, whether foes or friends of the administration.

The cases are now unfolding on both legal and political fronts. It is most worrisome that because the wheels of justice grind exceedingly slow in the country, their prosecution will stretch beyond the life of the Aquino administration and past the next national and local elections.

How the political interests of the accused and the accusers would collide or converge in May 2016, the paramount non-partisan interest that must be favored is the Filipino people’s right to know, access information, and hold accountable in law and in the next elections those who amassed our hard-earned taxes for private gain.

At its birth, the Aquino Administration pledged to crack a simple equation–-curb corruption to curb poverty. To most everyone it was clear that an FOI law could have served as fount and pivot of its reform agenda.

An FOI law will define clear procedures and reasonable limits on citizen requests for information and documents vested with public interest and in the custody of public officials and agencies.

And this is the essence of an FOI law-–a rights-based permanent framework that is far more superior to the Administration’s voluntary disclosure of some public finance documents, or only those that it decides to post online.

About 100 countries across the world have enacted FOI laws. They have demonstrated how FOI serves as bedrock and enabler of most other rights of people to education, health, livelihood, property, security, and even life and happiness.

In the Philippines, a multitude of citizens and sectors--students, workers, informal settlers, professionals, academics, businessmen, church people, journalists, bloggers, donors, and civil society organizations–have declared their explicit and firm stand in favor of the passage of the FOI law.

The online and onsite petition on www.change.org/TayoNaParaSaFOI for President Aquino and House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. to finally act decisively on its passage has drawn about 10,000 signatories, and counting.

FOI is a legislation that is 27 years overdue. The 1987 Constitution guarantees the people's right to access information. It enshrines transparency as a state policy. It has obliged the members of Congress to pass an FOI law that will complement and effectively enforce both.

But five presidents and nine Congresses hence, the FOI bill remains an elusive reform measure. It baffles most everyone why such an important legislation has languished for more years in an administration that has sworn to take the path of "Daang Matuwid."

To be sure, the Aquino administration commands a plurality of votes in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

It has shown it could muster the numbers for reform bills certified by the President.

The Sin Tax Law and the Responsible Parenthood Act are two examples. There is no question that if it wants to, it could do the same for FOI.

Under the steady leadership of Sen. Grace Poe, chair of the committee on public information, the Senate passed its version of the bill on third and final reading in record time last March yet.

Meanwhile, in the House, the chair of the committee on public information, Rep. Jorge Almonte, has pledged to see the counterpart bill move past his committee at least before the year is over.

The next move, the final, decisive push for the FOI Act, is for the President and Speaker Belmonte to make.

Beyond partisan political interests, leaders and citizens must together take the path of Daang Matuwid, a road to progress basking in the sunshine of Freedom of Information, to curb corruption and poverty.

Pass the People's FOI bill now. --Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on July 01, 2014.

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