THE Senate and the House of Representatives will resume sessions this Jan. 18 and will have only three weeks to act on important legislation before it adjourns for the elections.

One important piece of legislation being pushed for approval by its advocates is the draft Freedom of Information Act that has passed third reading in both chambers of Congress. What remains to be done is for the House of Representatives to complete its action and name its representatives to the bicameral conference that will consolidate the versions of the two chambers and submit it for signature of the President.

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If the measure does not get approved by Feb. 5, violations of the people's right to information would continue, said a statement of the "Right to Know Right Now! Network" that is composed of over 100 media and non-government organizations.

The Jan. 18--Feb. 5 window gives Congress only nine days of sessions to complete action on the proposed law.

If legislators fail to act on time, the work of the "Right to Know Right Now! Network" in the last eight years would go to waste. A letter from the network said, "Failure by the Congress to pass the law until February 5 means only one tragic result--the death of the law in the 14th Congress, and total reversal of all our efforts to pass legislation critical to fostering good governance, or even, clean and credible elections on May 10, 2010."

No action means proponents of the measure would have to go back to step one in proposing legislation to the 15th Congress whose members will be elected this May 10.

What make passage of the measure crucial are details on procedures on how one could get information from government.

The law will provide a standard and definite procedure in dealing with requests for information. Requests, submitted personally, by mail, or through electronic means, need to be complied with by government agencies in seven days, according to the network's statement.

Requests may be denied only when the information falls under exceptions narrowly defined and clearly specifying the legitimate public interest in keeping them secret.

These exceptions pertain to national defense, foreign affairs, law enforcement, personal privacy, trade secrets, Congressional executive sessions, drafts of adjudicatory decisions, privileged information in legal proceedings, and such other information exempted by law or the Constitution.

In cases of denial of access, citizens are given the right to appeal administratively, or to ask for review by the Ombudsman or by the Courts. Where the denial appears to be valid, the Act gives citizens the opportunity to prove a greater or overriding public interest in disclosure. Where the denial is illegal, the citizen concerned may file the appropriate criminal or administrative complaint.

In the call for change in Philippine politics and governance, a law assuring access to information would be a requisite to meaningful reform.

Advocates of the freedom of information law have gone a long way in pushing for this needed reform, yet are troubled by the lack of a final action by Congress and the days remaining before legislators adjourn for the elections.

The goal of access to information has become so near and yet so painfully far.

(ninicab@sunstar.com.ph)