The Freedom of Information (FOI) bill is no longer languishing.
The House committee on public information approved on Tuesday the FOI bill, but without the controversial "right of reply" provision which many media leaders had been dreading.
The FOI bill seeks to mandate public access to information about government transactions.
Some lawmakers had been pushing the "right to reply" as part of the bill, which would legally require media to give the subjects of journalistic reporting equal space or airtime to reply.
Critics say that it would infringe on press freedom by enabling government to decide how media space and airtime are used.
The bill had barely moved in a year, despite being a so-called priority of President Aquino, who had campaigned on a promise of government transparency and accountability.
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The FOI bill became a symbol of that political vow. The measure still faces an arduous journey before it becomes law, but it has already surmounted a major obstacle posed by congressmen who have expressed heated opposition to giving even more power to the media without added safeguards against abuse.
Voting 17-3 with one abstention, the House panel approved the FOI bill despite objections even from the panel’s chair, Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone, who described the proposed legislation as “incomplete.”
“I would like to see a safeguard against possible abuse of the information that may be obtained through this bill. Right now, there is no provision to safeguard against possible abuse,” Evardone said during the hearing.
President Aquino himself said at a forum earlier this month that the media should not be afraid of the right of reply.
Malacañang, however, clarified that the President supports the right of reply in principle, and not as a part of any legislation. The FOI bill will now be sent to the plenary for further debates, where it needs to get a majority vote of all House members for it to be approved on second and third readings.
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In the Senate, the FOI bill is also still subject to plenary debates and is pending on second reading. Right of reply provision
Before the vote, Nueva Ecija Rep. Rodolfo Antonino, advocate of the right of reply provision, was given almost an hour to explain why the media should be required to publish or air the side of a person involved in an issue which stemmed from information obtained through the FOI bill.
Antonino argued that giving the media “unbridled access to information” will make politicians more susceptible to “demolition jobs.”
“When they [the media] have information, entities who would like to do demolition jobs will have more information to demolish other people,” he said during the hearing.
He added that a right-of-reply provision can solve the problem of corruption in the media.
“If the media were to be required to print both sides of the story, this corruption in media will be reduced to a minimum. If they [the media] want information, let us require them to use it responsibly,” he said.
Antonino likewise said that excluding the right-of-reply provision would effectively “censor the right of the other person to be heard.”
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Deputy Minority Leader Amelita Villarosa supported Antonino’s objection, saying she herself became a victim of “unfair” reporting.
“Ang sakit sakit na experience noon. When there’s a news item, they [the media] print it and they don’t bother to get the other side of the story. Those who suffer are not only the principals but also their children and their families,” she said.
In the end, these objections were overruled by a majority vote.
Antonino described the passing of the FOI bill as a form of “railroading.”
“I see no need to vote upon a consolidated bill that is incomplete and that has not been debated upon… This goes against the grain of the parliamentary process,” he said.
Bayan Muna Rep. Teodoro Casiño, however, said that the bill was not fast-tracked since it has been pending before the committee since February last year.
“What has actually happened is that we have removed the bill from a rut that it has been in. Tinanggal lang natin siya sa pagkakabalaho sa committee for more than a year,” Casiño said in a separate press briefing.
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Lawyer Nepomuceno Malaluan, convener of the “Right to Know, Right Now” coalition, welcomed the approval of the FOI bill.
“I think in the end, they [the oppositors] ran out of excuses. We congratulate our champions in the House and those who supported this bill during the vote,” Malaluan said in an interview. — Andreo Calonzo/RSJ/DVM, GMA News
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