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The Makabayan bloc in Congress today announced their withdrawal of authorship from the Freedom of Information substitute bill, pending the deletion or amendment of “Malacañang-sponsored provisions” that restrict, rathers than facilitates, public access to information.

Bayan Muna Rep. Teddy Casiño, a principal author of the bill, explained in a press conference that while the bloc supports the public clamor for the passage of an FOI bill, “we feel that the substitute bill, because of the weight of the restrictions, does not anymore reflect our vision of a genuine Freedom of Information Bill.”

He said they would push for amendments in plenary and will duly co-author the measure again if and when the exceptions are deleted or substantially amended. “What we need is a genuine FOI bill, not a watered-down version,” he said.

Casiño specifically pointed out the provision that institutionalizes the President’s “executive privilege” allowing him to withold certain records of minutes and advice given to him as privileged “by reason of the sensitivity of the subject matter.”

“Masyadong maluwag iyong ‘sensitivity of the subject matter.’ The parameters are unclear. Arbitrary ang dating. Parang ‘personal taste’ lang ng Chief Executive,” he pointed out.

Meanwhile, ACT Teacher Party-list Rep. Antonio Tinio complained that exempting any information pertaining to national security, including law enforcement is too broad. “That covers all activities involving the police,” he said, adding that under present jurisprudence, information pertaining to law enforcement is not covered by restrictions to information.”

“Further, discretion and power to deem documents confidential is given to a large number of people. Under the substitute bill, the determination if whether a document will be exempted from the FOI Act shall be the responsibility of ‘the head of office of the government agency in custody or control of the information, or any responsible central or field officers duly designated by him,'” Tinio said

Anakpawis Party-list Rep. Rafael Mariano also questioned the inclusion of drafts of orders, resolutions, decisions and memoranda among the exempted documents when these are crucial in public consultations, especially the formulation of implementing rules and regulations. The three-term congressman cited situations where stakeholders may be prohibited from exercising their right of information because of the said exception.

Gabriela Women’s Party Rep. Luz Ilagan said, “With the FOI bill, it should be easier for us to get pertinent information from the government. However, this version will only negate the process.”
“We have to be vigilant. If we retain the exceptions, we are negating the basis of the proposed measure,” Ilagan cautioned.

Her fellow Gabriela Rep. Emmi de Jesus also said, “Ilalaban natin ito sa period of amendments.” She said they will push for a progressive version of the bill, similar to that of their original filed bill.

Meanwhile, Kabataan Party-list Rep. Raymond Palatino dubbed the substitute bill “Freedom of Exemption.” “The amendments had distorted the bill. Nagmutate na sya. Hindi na Freedom of Information. Naging Freedom of Exemption na sya. Hindi po FOE bill ang pinirmahan ko. FOE ibig sabihin ‘foe,’ contrary to the FOI bill na tinutulak ng tao,” he said.

Casiño emphasized that, “With so many exemptions it might even be used by government authorities to withhold information that should be accessible to the public. Congress has bended back too far on the FOI bill. The Committee on Public Information has delayed its deliberations and even watered down the bill just to accommodate President Aquino’s concerns,” he added.# # #

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