By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA – President Benigno S. Aquino III finally gave the green light for the Malacañang version of the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill.
According to a report, Undersecretary Manuel Quezon III of the Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office (PCDSPO) said at a news briefing Thursday: “In our discussions today, we presented the results of our studies and the various consultations that the President had instructed us to do. And the President’s marching orders to us was—and this was his words—to ‘push ahead with Freedom of Information.”’
Quezon said the working draft of the Palace version of the bill was based on the measure filed by Deputy Speaker Lorenzo Tañada III but with inputs from various stakeholders.
In a statement, Bayan Muna Rep. Teddy Casiño, one of the main authors of the FOI bill in Congress welcomed the “super belated” support of the Palace for the FOI bill but also expressed concern that the Palace draft “may still contain too many exceptions so as to render the law ineffective and toothless.”
Quezon said the exceptions to the mandatory-disclosure provision were those “recognized by law and jurisprudence (on information that) would harm the ability of the state to, let’s say, protect peace and order or would harm our diplomatic relations with other countries.”
In his paper titled “Enhancing or restricting access?” Luis Teodoro, deputy director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), said: “A scan of the administration bill reveals a focus on restrictions rather than the right to information. The administration bill expands the list of information exempted from public disclosure, and through that alone already restricts the right to information.”
Among the exceptions stated in the Palace version of the bill are “the records of minutes and advice given and opinions expressed during decision-making or policy formulation as part of the Chief Executive’s deliberative process. Once policy has been formulated and decisions made, minutes and research data may be made available for disclosure unless it is made in executive session.”
Quezon said the freedom of the President “to have the widest consultation and the freest debates within his official family should be protected, while, at the same time, the right of the public to know the basis for official policies should also be given adequate protection.”
Teodoro, also former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communications, said the provision forbidding the release of information on policy discussions until the adoption of a policy is “antithetical to the principle of citizen participation in the making of state policy.”
The Palace version also replaced “national defense” with “national security” in the Congress versions of the bill as grounds for invoking exceptions.
“If they would expose police, military operations—in other words, put those involved in harm’s way—I think that’s very fair and logical that those would be grounds (for exception),” Quezon said.
Again, in his paper, Teodoro said this provides government agencies the same catch-all excuse for withholding information that has in the past been used to justify government secrecy and even the commission of human rights violations. “This provision in fact bears the fingerprints of the intelligence and military communities, whose traditions of secrecy and antipathy to human rights qualify them least to providing inputs to any FOIA [Freedom of Information Act].”
Teodoro also noted that the bill also removes the public interest override on executive [Presidential] privilege in the Tañada version, thus “institutionalizing absolute executive privilege through law.”
Other exceptions include “information pertaining to the foreign affairs, when its revelation shall/may unduly weaken the negotiating position of the government in an ongoing bilateral or multilateral negotiation…”
The following exceptions are also cited in the Palace version: law enforcement and border control information when its disclosure would unduly compromise or deal with any military operation or law enforcement operation, unduly compromise or interfere with the prevention, detection or suppression of criminal activity, disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions, drafts of orders, solutions, memoranda and the like, information in executive session in either House of Congress, trade secrets, personal information of a natural person, classified as privilege communications in legal proceedings by law or by Rules of Court, and if information is already made accessible through other means.
As to the penalties, the Palace version limits penalties to administrative rather than criminal sanctions, except in cases of destroying documents or perjury.
“…the House should not feel bound by the executive’s draft. We should pass a bill that will serve the interest not of Malacañang but of the people,” Casiño said.
“If the administration bill is passed even in its present form—and it is likely to be amended, altered and watered down by the members of Congress, among whom there is a goodly number who have not overcome their authoritarian and self-serving mindsets—it will make access to information more problematic than it is today, putting it in the same category of laws supposedly meant to broaden citizen rights but which actually restrict them,” Teodoro said.