‘It’s no longer Freedom of Information but Freedom of Exemption.’ – Raymond Palatino, Kabataan Partylist
By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA — To some, it may appear questionable if proponents of the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill back out at the so-called stage of final push.
This week, the Makabayan bloc of progressive partylist groups in Congress announced their withdrawal of authorship from the FOI, pending the deletion or amendment of what it called as “Malacañang-sponsored provisions.”
In a press conference, Bayan Muna Rep. Teddy Casiño, a principal author of the bill, said: “…[w]e feel that the substitute bill, because of the weight of the restrictions, does not anymore reflect our vision of a genuine Freedom of Information Bill.”
The Makabayan bloc – composed of Bayan Muna, Anakpawis, Gabriela Women’s Party, KabataanPartylist and ACT Teachers Partylist – says the consolidated bill, House Bill 6766, “would restrict, rather than facilitate, public access to information.”
Kabataan Party-list Rep. Raymond Palatino lamented that amendments had distorted the bill.
“It has mutated already,” Palatino said in Filipino. “It’s no longer Freedom of Information but Freedom of Exemption. I did not sign a FOE bill, which means ‘foe,’ contrary to the FOI bill being pushed by the people.”
The consolidated bill HB 6766 lists ten points of exceptions.
Exempted from public access include those pertaining to national security or defense, information that refers to the foreign affairs of the Republic of the Philippines.
Records of minutes during decision-making and policy-formulation, including the opinions and advice given then, are not to be disclosed. Drafts of resolution, order, memoranda or audit reports of any branch of government are also to be exempted from access.
Any information that pertains to internal or external defense, law enforcement and border control is also not to be disclosed.
Information obtained by any committee of either House of Congress in executive session is also to be exempted from disclosure.
Other exceptions include 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.
These provisions are all present in Malacañang’s FOI version.
In 2011, some advocates of the FOI have already raised concerns over the versions then being drafted by the Malacañang study group on FOI.
In a policy forum organized by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility in July 2011, University of the Philippines (UP) law professor Theodore Te expressed  strong criticism against the Palace’s version. “It is very ironic that the bill supposedly enhances liberty but actually diminishes it,” Te said. “You cannot have a bill that has so many restrictions.”
In the same forum, Luis Teodoro, CMFR deputy executive director and former dean of UP College of Mass Communications, already warned that “if the administration’s version would be adopted, FOI advocates should reject and condemn the passage of the bill.”
Back then, Bayan Muna Rep. Teddy Casiño said the exceptions can be easily invoked by government agencies to justify denial of access.
CMFR’s Teodoro, in particular, zeroed in on national security as among the exceptions.
“National security should not be used as a catch-all phrase to evading release of information, especially because of the intelligence community’s antipathy to human rights, its policy has always been antithetical to citizen participation,” Teodoro said.
In his paper titled “Enhancing or restricting access?” released in early 2012, Teodoro 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.”
In a statement, Anakpawis Party-list Rep. Rafael Mariano also criticized the inclusion of drafts of orders, resolutions, decisions and memoranda among the exempted documents. Mariano said these are “crucial” in public consultations, especially the formulation of implementing rules and regulations.
Teodoro also criticized the removal of the public interest override on executive [Presidential] privilege. This, he said, is tantamount to “institutionalizing absolute executive privilege through law.”
In a press conference, Casiño also pointed out the same provision, saying it institutionalizes the President’s “executive privilege,” allowing him to withhold certain records of minutes and advice given to him as privileged “by reason of the sensitivity of the subject matter.”
Casiño said the parameters are unclear.
ACT Teachers Party Rep. Antonio Tinio noted that the discretion and power to tag documents as confidential is given to a large number of people. He said that under the substitute FOI bill, the determination whether a document would be exempted from the FOI Act shall be the responsibility of ‘the head of office of the government agency in custody or control of the information, or any responsible central or field officers duly designated by him.
Gabriela Rep. Emmi de Jesus said they would push for a progressive version of the bill, similar to the original bill they filed.
“We will fight it out in the period of amendments,” De Jesus said.