Thursday, January 5, 2012

News Update Aquino reveals stand on FOI bill, tells Cabinet men send it to Congress

President Benigno Aquino III on Wednesday revealed his stand on the Freedom of Information bill — a landmark legislation designed to lift the shroud of secrecy over government dealings and data — and told some of his Cabinet men to finalize the Palace version and send it to congress.

Aquino told administration officials to “push ahead” with the much-delayed Freedom of Information bill during at a two-hour meeting with some members of the Cabinet earlier in the day, said Communications Group Undersecretary Manolo Quezon III at a press briefing on Wednesday.

“The President’s marching order to us was — and these were his words — to push ahead with Freedom of Information,” Quezon said. It means "Finalize [thePalace version] and send it to Congress," presidential spokesperson Edwin Laciera told GMA News Online.

The FOI bill seeks to implement Article III, Section 7 and Article II, Section 28 of the 1987 Constitution and guarantees the rights of people to access information and documents of public interest, “subject to reasonable conditions prescribed by law” “Basically, everyone has been asking where does the President stand on this? Does the President have any more reservations or questions or is he getting in the way of this? And I think this is as categorical an answer as everyone has wanted to hear and he is saying ‘push ahead’,” Quezon said.

Also present during the meeting were Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, Energy Secretary Rene Almendras, Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning head Ricky Carandang, and presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda.

Malacañang decided to adopt the version of the bill filed by Deputy House Speaker Lorenzo Tañada. Quezon said the Palace will introduce its proposal as amendments to retain the integrity of the bill and maintain the momentum at the committee level.

“As you know it is pending in committee already and from the very start we were very transparent in saying that the view we were looking at… it will be introduced… instead of a competing bill, it would be introduced as a series of amendments either in the committee or plenary,” Quezon said.

A consolidated version of the FOI bill has been pending before the House committee since February last year. Various versions of the proposed legislation, separately authored by 11 senators, are also pending committee approval at the Senate.

Sen. Tañada acknowledges Aquino directive

Tañada acknowledged Malacañang’s announcement.

“Together with the champions and advocates in the House, I will organize talks with the Speaker and the committee on public information chair for the next concrete steps and definite timeline,” he said in a statement.

“I welcome the announcement of the Palace regarding the FOI bill. It is now incumbent on both chambers of the legislative branch to work for the passage of the FOI in their respective chambers before June 2012,” Tañada said in a text message.

House members will give weight to the Palace proposal in the same manner that they took into consideration the inputs of other stakeholders, former journalist and now Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone said in a separate text message. Evardone, chairperson of the House committee on public information, said he sees the smooth passage of the FOI bill at the committee level and at the plenary once the Palace submits its version to Congress.

“We have been very anxious of this development. This will definitely hasten the approval of the FOI bill,” Evardone said. He added, however, that his committee will not automatically adopt the Palace version of the measure.

“It does not mean that we will adopt it hook, line and sinker, but definitely, we will give weight to the Palace proposal in the same manner that we took into consideration the inputs of other stakeholders,” he said.

Another layer of bureaucracy

The only change the President did to the draft bill was remove the proposed Information Commission, Quezon said, because the President felt the commission would just add another layer of bureaucracy.

“The overall intention of this whole exercise, besides making it as democratic and consultative as possible, was precisely because we were all working under the view that we had to make the constitutional injunction making information a right of the public a living reality,” he said.

With the President’s approval, Quezon said the ball is now in the hands of the Congress.

In June 2010, the House of Representatives failed to ratify the bill due to lack of quorum, as well as objections from some congressmen. — KBK/ELR/VS,