Dishonorable farewell

Published by rudy Date posted on June 8, 2010

The honorable congressmen of the House of Representatives needed no more than two minutes to ratify a constitutionally mandated and long overdue bill which people have been awaiting for more than 14 years and they blew it big time.

Ratifying the Freedom of Information bill would have been a fine legacy of the 14th Congress. The Senate did its part and it was up to the congressmen in the end.

But the same House that buried impeachment after impeachment complaint against Gloria Macapagal Arroyo chose to snub a law that would have given teeth to the constitutionally guaranteed right of people to information. It was a shameful House until the end.

As the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines said in the news recently, the incoming 15th Congress should quickly revive the FOI bill, and pass it within the first 100 days of the administration of President-apparent Benigno Aquino 3rd, who ran on a powerful anti-corruption platform.

The bill’s approval inside the first 100 days of the new administration will surely give meaning to Mr. Aquino’s forceful anti-corruption stance.

Corruption is anti-labor. It breeds unfair and wrongful competition, blows out investments and destroys jobs. We definitely want Mr. Aquino to win the war on corruption. And the FOI bill would promote absolute transparency, reinforce public accountability and repel malfeasance in government. Highly improved governance is vital to drawing in more investments and creating badly needed new jobs.

According to the Office of the Ombudsman, corruption costs the government about P240 billion every year. The Philippines ranked 139th among 180 countries in the 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International. With a score of 2.4 points in 2009, the country’s ranking improved only slightly from 141st in 2008.

The index score relates to perceptions of the degree of corruption as seen by business leaders and country analysts. The score ranges from zero, which is highly corrupt, to 10 points, which is very clean.

Sharing the 139th rank with the Philippines in the 2009 index were Pakistan, Belarus and Bangladesh. Somalia, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Sudan and Iraq were the countries seen as most corrupt. With a score of 1.1 points, war-torn Somalia has been without a functioning government for two decades.

The FOI bill seeks to enable the public’s constitutional right to government information on matters of civic concern, including state contracts.

The bill 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.

Information exempt from the measure’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 invade privacy, and pertaining to current treaty negotiations, among others.

The measure limits the executive privilege to withhold sensitive information only in times of war and emergency.

If you recall, Arroyo chose a very broad invocation of executive privilege, which prevented the Senate from investigating further the corruption allegations against her, and which compelled the Senate to challenge the executive privilege rule before the Supreme Court.

The FOI bill would prevent the next President from doing what Arroyo did.

It would also enable the following provisions of the 1987 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.”

It is too late for this Congress to pass the FOI bill, but the 15th Congress holds a lot of promise. It can do it in record time. Members of the next Congress, and even President-apparent Noynoy Aquino himself promised to expedite the enactment of the FOI bill, and the people expect them to fulfill that promise. –ERNESTO F. HERRERA, Manila Times

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