Advocates to Senators: Look into FOI restrictions

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — The Senate begins once again it's own push for an Freedom of Information (FOI) law, two months after President Rodrigo Duterte issued Executive Order No. 2 – which aims to guarantee public access to information and documents from the Executive. It does not cover the legislative and judicial branches of government.

In her opening statement, Senator Grace Poe said the FOI law was long overdue. This year marks the 28th year since the first known version of the bill was filed by the late Senator Raul Roco in 1988. Poe adds, they "see the need to finally enact an FOI law as the (current) administration also fully espouses transparency and accountability in the bureacracy." They cite the President's Executive Order as an example of that commitment.

But while FOI advocates agree the President's move was laudable, they urge Senators to take a closer look at the restrictions Malacanang released last month.

READ: FOI restrictions a dangerous move – press freedom advocates

Former Congressman Erin Tanada says the sheer number of exceptions proposed by the executive branch in it's draft manual was surprising. He says it is vital that "a law on FOI is passed in order to address the 166 exceptions."

They express concern that restrictions on Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN), detailed reports on congressional disbursements, and even department orders could find their way into the FOI bill – leading to a watered down and toothless law.

READ: Palace bares 166 restrictions in draft freedom of information manual

Atty Eirene Aguila of the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition says "any sources of exception should be the constitution, jurisprudence and law," and cannot be expanded by the issuance of department orders.

They also want a review of Memorandum Circular 78 - 1964 which governs the security of classified matters in government offices. Aguila says department heads could use the MC to deny access to information by simply declaring it confidential – even with a law in place.

Senator JV Ejercito agrees that they should be careful in drafting the Senate version of the bill before submitting it for deliberations as "any irregularities might hinder (the public) from invoking their right to information."

His version (Senate Bill No. 149) is among 12 others submitted. It includes a penal clause which proposes criminal and administrative liability.

Senator Sonny Angara meanwhile says an enabling FOI could lead to better tax compliance as the public could now see where their taxes really go.

Neophyte Senator Joel Villanueva agrees, saying the country "needs a disclosure policy to facilitate doing business in the country, boost private sector investments, and advance our economic efficiency and competitiveness."

The Senators note that the best economies in the world have the most transparent governance policies.

Although they see no opposition from their fellow Senators in the passing of the proposed bill, they worry that their counterparts in the Lower House may once again stall efforts on their end.

They now challenge Congressmen to pass their own version so the FOI doesn't remain the longest-running bill in Philippine history and instead becomes an actual law.