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Appeal to lawmakers: please pass the FOI

Commentary

Right to know

By Ellen Tordesillas

There is no overstating that only when the citizenry is informed can they be empowered to be partners in nation building.

A vigilant citizenry is the most effective check against an abusive government.

That's why the right of the people to information it is enshrined in the Constitution. The Bill of Rights provides that "Access to official records, and to documents, and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions or decision, as well as to government research data  used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law."

Two years into the Benigno Aquino III presidency, the optimism for the passage of the Freedom of Information bill has become a cause of concern for media practitioners.

There was supposed to be  meeting by the House committee on public information chaired by Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone last Aug. 7  but it was cancelled. Instead it was decided to get the sense of the House majority coalition man on the bill.

That would be problematic because members of Congress who had been made uncomfortable by media want to include in the bill a protection of their own interest.

Evardone said  Nueva Ecija Rep. Rodolfo Antonino, a Gloria Arroyo ally but whose National Unity Party is now part of the House majority coalition, still insists on the inclusion in the FOI bill provisions on the right to reply of parties who feel aggrieved by news reports or stories.

Antonino's idea would intrude into editorial freedom and be a violation of freedom of the press, which is guaranteed by the Constitution.

The  pooled editorial of  media groups on FOI addressed  some of the excuses of  Malacañang officials and legislators:

" From various accounts of senior officials and pro-administration legislators, Their less than vigorous interest to pass the FOI Act supposedly derives from a few reasons:

1. That, some Executive agencies have become more transparent anyway, they are already uploading online some budget and public finance documents;

2. That the FOI Act seems largely an issue of the middle class and the media;

3. That the FOI Act might not get the numbers needed in the House, and with the May 2013 elections coming soon, might divide more than unite the political parties.

"  Online uploads of public documents are just half the transparency equation that the FOI Act must guarantee. The other, more important half of the equation that an FOI Act guarantees is the public disclosure of documents on request or on demand of citizens asserting their right to access information in government custody.

"  Citizens need and must know how public officials exercise their powers and authorities,  how they spend public funds, what contracts and agreements they sign and seal on our behalf, what policy issues bother them that must also bother us so we may participate in making decisions.

"   Citizens need and must know what programs for the delivery of the most basic services, as well as how they can access with success and within reasonable time frames the most relevant public documents they need to secure and safeguard their most basic needs. Indeed, in the panoply of rights, the right to information is both the most supreme and the most fundamental as it is the bedrock of all our rights to education, property,  livelihood, even life.

"The right to information is our protection against government abuse, at the same time that it is our power to make government accountable."

The editorial noted that there is not much time left in the 15th Congress.

"  Today, we speak with one voice and join the rest of the people in demanding political will on the part of President Aquino, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, and House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. to lead their respective institutions in immediately enacting the FOI law."

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