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FOI bill still a priority – Speaker

MANILA, Philippines - The Freedom of Information (FOI) bill remains a priority of the House of Representatives despite criticism from transparency groups that the chamber is not acting on the landmark measure, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said yesterday.

Belmonte said the FOI bill was among the measures listed by both leaders of the House and Senate last month as prioritized for passage before the campaign period for the 2016 elections starts in February.

“Our list of priorities remains unchanged and our timetable and agenda is still the same,” Belmonte told reporters, adding that “as soon as there is an opportunity to pass it, we’ll do so.”

The Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition, a national coalition of groups and individuals campaigning for transparency and accountability in government, has released a statement declaring the “death” of the FOI bill in Congress.

The measure, which was a consolidation of 20 bills filed by several lawmakers, has been passed at the committee level but has yet to be presented in plenary for approval on second reading.

The counterpart bill in the Senate was already passed on third and final reading.

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Earlier, authors of the FOI bill expressed disappointment that President Aquino did not push for the approval of the transparency measure in his last State of the Nation Address.

Parañaque City Rep. Gustavo Tambunting, one of the authors of the measure, said Aquino would have gained more support from the public had he mentioned the FOI bill.

“I had expected him to push for the FOI bill since he was supposed to be for transparency in government,” Tambunting said.

Quezon City Rep. Winston Castelo, one of the authors of the measure, said he hopes the House will pass the bill soon.

“We are looking forward to the plenary debates on the bill which are certainly bound to be challenging,” Akbayan party-list Rep. Barry Gutierrez, also an author, said in a statement.

“We are already prepared to answer any and all questions relating to the various issues and concerns about the FOI,” he said.

The FOI bill covers all government offices in the executive, legislative and judicial branches as well as constitutional bodies.

The transparency measure seeks to make available for public scrutiny, copying and reproduction all information pertaining to official acts, transactions or decisions as well government research data used as basis for policy development.

It, however, also makes certain exemptions, including information that is specifically authorized to be kept secret such as those relating to national security; records of minutes and opinions expressed during the policy-formulation invoked by the President as privileged; information gathered by any congressional committee in executive session; and information whose disclosure will constitute unwarranted invasion of privacy.

Reps. Leni Robredo of Camarines Sur and Kaka Bag-ao of Dinagat Islands, who are also among the authors of the FOI bill, cited other major youth groups – such as the FOI Youth Initiative – that have not lost hope for the measure.

“We are glad that their optimism remains firm in the fight for the passage of this important measure. At the end of the day, progressive legislation can only be enacted not just through the efforts of lawmakers, but through active citizenship and people’s participation,” Robredo said.

“If they say that there is still hope, it is our duty as their representatives to ensure that their aspiration will be fulfilled,” Bag-ao said.

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