Local, foreign business groups back planned Freedom of Information Act

Louella Desiderio (The Philippine Star) - June 14, 2021 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — Philippine and foreign business groups are pushing for the passage of the proposed Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, which seeks to require government agencies to disclose information on matters involving public interest, to strengthen the people’s right to information, and promote transparency.

A joint position paper was submitted to Rep. Joseph Lara, chairman of the Committee on Public Information at the House of Representatives, by  the American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines Inc., Australian-New Zealand Chamber of Commerce Philippines, Bangsamoro Federal Business Council Inc., Canadian Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, Dutch Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines, European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, German-Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines, Integrity Initiative, Italian Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines Inc., Iloilo Business Club Inc., Judicial Reform Initiative, Spanish Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines, Legal Management Council of the Philippines, Makati Business Club, Management Association of the Philippines, Nordic Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, Philippine Association of Multinational Companies Regional Headquarters Inc., Philippine Business for Education, and the Semiconductor and Electronics Industries in the Philippines Foundation Inc.

“We acknowledge the laudable aim of the bills of promoting and strengthening the people’s right to information by allowing citizens to request from the government, information involving public interest or government transaction at any given time and subject to limitations,” the groups said.

While the groups want the FOI Act to be passed, they presented recommendations on the coverage of the proposed measure.

In particular, the groups want a clear definition of “data from private contractors” in the proposed measure.

The groups said they recognize the need to include documents submitted by private entities entering into contracts or transactions with the government in the coverage of the FOI Act for transparency, but also deem it necessary to set a limit on what can be disclosed.

“Our proposal is for FOI to only cover information voluntarily given/submitted by the private sector in connection with its transactions with the government, where utilization of public funds is involved, such as those in private-public partnership, joint venture agreements, build-operate-transfer contracts, and the like,” the groups said.

Commercial and proprietary information relating to patents, formulation, packaging of products, intellectual property, production, and testing methods in submitted documents for the procurement process should be excluded from the coverage of the FOI as these are considered key assets for the success of businesses and should be kept confidential, the groups said.

“An unbridled right to access proprietary information from business entities simply because of their participation in government transactions or contracts can result in prejudice, especially if the right is abused and the law is invoked and utilized to conduct commercial or industrial espionage.”

Other recommendations made by the groups include the adoption of a mandatory government  disclosure framework to have all government agencies upload public information on their websites and bulletins and have such updated every quarter, as well as to have proper safekeeping of records.

In addition, the groups said the proposed FOI Act should have provisions that prohibit the use of information for illegal or malicious purposes or in violation of fair competition.

“What should be penalized is not merely the denial of access to public information. The law must also give legal basis for a cause of action for damages in favor of aggrieved persons. This would guarantee against any abuse of the exercise of this right under the FOI law,” the groups said.

The groups also recommended the creation of an independent FOI Commission to implement the law and have an appeals and review system on FOI requests, as well as to reduce the number of days for government agencies to respond to an FOI request to five working days from 15 working days, in line with the Ease of Doing Business and Efficient Government Service Delivery Act.

“We fully commit to advocate for an FOI Act that will uphold integrity, accountability, and transparency of the government which at the same time, is protective of the rights of commercial undertakings or businesses as we believe this can pave the way for favorable economic development in the country,” the groups said.

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