Saturday, 6 February 2010

On the pending Freedom of Information Act

Manila Times

One of the painful facts about our society is that various elite factions, clans and dynasties control policy-making (which includes lawmaking) and governance.

These elite factions do not form a hegemonic unity. They have conflicting interests, foremost of which is, naturally, each faction’s aim to be Numero Uno or at least to be in the Numero Uno’s circle of allies.

But all factions and clans suddenly get united when it comes to frustrating reforms to make the Philippines genuinely democratic and make governmental graft and corruption more difficult.

It is therefore just to refer to these elites, in their role as preservers of the undemocratic and corrupt system of governance, as “the underminers of reform.”

The underminers have once again proved to be superior to the reformers in the power to pass and trash laws.

They prevented on Wednesday the ratification by the House of Representatives of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Law that the House-Senate bicameral conference crafted out of the House and Senate versions of the bill that had been earlier passed on third reading in both chambers of Congress.

The Senate had ratified the proposed law in its session on Monday, February 1. Expectations were high that the House would also ratify it on Wednesday. But it did not—for lack of a quorum.

The proposed FOI Act that gives the citizenry access to all government records (except those bearing on national security, but the officials refusing access have to amply explain why or they could be held liable under the law). It also requires all government transactions to be posted in government Internet websites.

Only 91 congressmen, out of 298, were present in last Wednesday’s session—the final one of the House of Representatives of the Fourteenth Congress until it reconvenes on May 31, for the purpose of serving (together with Senate) as the National Board of Canvassers for the presidential and vice presidential election. By law, the Congress, constituted as the National Board of Canvassers, proclaims the winning presidential and vice presidential candidates.

Killed by lack of a quorum

The absence of 207 congressmen killed the enactment of the FOI Law—which President Arroyo had earlier promised to sign and therefore enact once it is submitted to her.

Other important pending bills that have passed the two congressional chambers on third reading and
which had been consolidated into final versions by the bicam were also doomed by the House’s failure to ratify the bicam versions. These bills also would have led to reforms in governance and the economic infrastructures of our country—reforms that would loosen the elite groups’ anti-developmental grip on segments of the political economy.

Quezon Rep. Erin Tañada, a main proponents of the FOI bill, said technically speaking the House could still decide to ratify the bill when it reconvenes on May 31 and in the days in June before the life of the Fourteenth Congress ends. But he expressed pessimism. He said he had a hard time persuading the House leadership to even put the ratification of the FOI Law on last Wednesday’s agenda.

Referring to the underminers—but without using that term which we hope, with this article, would enter our English vocabulary as another name for the anti-reform elites—Congressman Tañada said, “They are afraid. What if the objective of the bill to apply accountability and transparency in all government transactions are realized and a lot of things come out into the open?”

Vigorous campaign for FOI Act must go on

We must, however, lose neither hope nor steam.

We must continue to press on for the enactment of the FOI Law.

If the miracle of the FOI bill’s ratification by the House does not happen from May 31 to that day in June when the Fourteenth Congress adjourns for good, it would be back to square one. The bill will again have to be debated in the House and in the Senate!

All Filipinos who wish to see our country’s government become more transparent, more accountable and less corrupt must wage a vigorous campaign for the enactment of the Freedom of Information Law.

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