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Solons see passage of FOI bill in 16th Congress
The online news portal of TV5

MANILA, Philippines -- Lawmakers championing the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill in the House of Representatives on Friday expressed optimism that the long-awaited law will finally pass this present Congress after the concerns of President Benigno Aquino III were addressed in House Bill 3237 filed by Camarines Sur Rep. Maria Leonor Robredo and Deputy Speaker Henedina Abad.

The bill is now being consolidated with the other FOI measures by a Technical Working Group (TWG) of the House Committee on Public Information.

The FOI advocates found renewed confidence after Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office (PCDSPO) Undersecretary Manuel Quezon III explained Malacañang’s position during a meeting with the TWG held last March 10.

DIWA party-list Rep. Emmeline Aglipay, who heads the TWG, said she had already examined HB 3237 and the 15th Congress’ Committee report version which is the template being used for the consolidation of the FOI bills filed before the 16th Congress.

“Except for the differences in the order of provisions and a few distinct provisions, the bill endorsed by Malacañang and the template reference bill are identical in most provisions, and substantially the same,” she said.

During the TWG meeting, Aglipay enumerated the key amendments introduced by the Malacañang version that was subsequently confirmed by Quezon to be a faithful summary of their (Malacañang) amendments.

Among them is the inclusion of the phrase "national security" in exception 1, which provides the Executive greater flexibility than the bicameral conference version that confined national security matters to defense and foreign affairs.

This addresses the concern expressed by President Aquino over the adequacy of the protection of national security matters.

Another is the introduction of a new exception -- more popularly referred to as executive privilege -- to address President Aquino's concern over his access to free and frank opinion and discussion with his closest advisers.

The Malacañang version also expanded the list of documents for mandatory disclosure by including the documents required by Department of Budget and Management (DBM), and also some by the Department of Interior and Local Governments (DILG), for website posting by agencies and local governments.

In addition, it also included the Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALNs) in the list for mandatory posting in government websites.

Meanwhile, to address the bureaucracy's concern over the gravity of penalties, a number of criminal offenses were reclassified as administrative offenses.

The defense of good faith was also introduced.

On the other hand, to balance the advocates' concerns over potential abuse of exceptions and criticisms of "watering down", the safeguards were further strengthened.

In addition to the legal presumption in favor of access, the following additional safeguards on the exceptions were agreed on: the exceptions shall be strictly construed; exceptions cannot be invoked to cover up a crime, wrongdoing, graft, or corruption; and the President, the Supreme Court, the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the Constitutional Commissions may waive an exception with respect to information in the custody of offices under their respective supervision or control, when they deem that there is a compelling or overriding public interest in disclosure.

All these proposals by the Executive were adopted in the TWG reference bill in the House of Representatives and in the recently-approved bill in the Senate.

Aglipay has submitted the comparative study of the TWG’s template that is being discussed and the Malacañang-supported HB 3237 to Misamis Occidental Rep. Jorge Almonte, chair of the Committee on Public Information.

In the meantime, Dinagat Islands Rep. Arlene "Kaka" Bag-ao said it was now clear that the reference bill and HB 3237 have both covered the concerns of the Office of the President and other government agencies.

“We have already attained a level of agreement with the Executive that was not there during the past Congresses. It is important that we are in unison and the communication remains open. We hope this will continue until we hurdle the plenary debates,” the staunch FOI advocate said.

“We are hopeful that with closer legislative and executive cooperation, we can expect the realization of the long-awaited FOI law before the end of this administration,” Bag-ao said.