Foiled

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WITH ONLY six days of sessions left before the 15th Congress adjourns, and despite the optimism of Congressman Lorenzo (Erin) Tanada III, the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill was dead in the water as of this writing (January 24).

Although the House Public Information Committee chaired by Samar Representative Ben Evardone had seen the bill through, getting it into the plenary for discussion had so far been as problematic as the search for the Holy Grail.

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Information control

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CONTROLLING THE flow of information—deciding what citizens are told, how it’s presented to them and even determining what they should and shouldn’t know—has always been a critical concern among the powerful. Whether in the Philippines, its neighbors, or in the most backward or most developed countries of the world, the kind of information that reaches citizens is crucial to the outcome of elections, the making of the policies that decide the quality of life of millions, the staying power of dictators, and even the prospects for war or peace.

The entire planet is inundated with tsunamis of information daily, thanks to the international media organizations’ relentless transmission of reports, commentary and images via cable, print and the Internet. The swift advance of information and communication technology has also made national borders of no consequence to filtering information. At the national level, radio, TV and print assail the senses daily in most countries including those yet to achieve the same level of development as Japan and most Western nations.

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Essential and non-negotiable

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IN a meeting with representatives of some member organizations of the Right to Know Right Now coalition campaigning for a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, Nueva Ecija Congressman Rodolfo Antonino refused to remove the Right of Reply (ROR) rider in a bill on FOI he has introduced in the 15th Congress.

His fellow representatives, said Antonino, want that rider in any FOI act that’s passed to guarantee that if the media were to report anything about them that puts them in a bad light, they would be able to present their side, or to correct an error in reporting. When told that fairness by presenting both sides of a controversy or issue, and in accusations of wrong doing, the alleged wrongdoer’s denial and explanation, is an ethical principle in journalism practice, Antonino flung at the journalists present the charge that media self-regulation doesn’t work, thus the need to compel media fairness through law.

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A problem like the Senate

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IT MUST have been the maroon robes—and the fact that the senators of the Republic, with one outrageous exception, were on their best behavior in the glare of TV lights during the impeachment trial of former Chief Justice Renato Corona early this year.

But the developing public impression of Senate gravitas, commitment to truth and justice, and good sense during that time—akin almost, though not quite, to the respect the Senate used to enjoy during the days of Claro M .Recto, Jose P.Laurel and Lorenzo Tanada—is fast giving way to collective disgust.

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Impossible

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NOTHING is impossible, said President Benigno Aquino III last Monday during his third State of the Nation Address, while demonstrating in the same speech that certain things are just not possible in an Aquino SONA.

Apparently it’s not possible for Mr. Aquino to mention “Human Rights violations,” “extrajudicial killings,” “Freedom of Information,” “Ampatuan Massacre,” “the killing of journalists” or even “Reproductive Health” in his address. And it’s probably not because of the limitations of his vocabulary.

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SONA of silence

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EXPECT President Benigno Aquino III to be extra enthusiastic during his State of the Nation Address on Monday in reporting what his administration did about corruption in his second year in office. But expect him too to be silent about the Freedom of Information bill, the Ampatuan massacre, the killing of journalists and media workers, and the state of human rights in these isles of dread.

It’s almost certain he’ll remind us of the removal through impeachment of former Supreme Court Justice Renato Corona, the corruption charges that have been filed against former Arroyo administration officials, and the charges of electoral fraud and plunder against Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself.

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Information, a human right

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THE AQUINO administration submitted last week to the House of Representatives Committee on Public Information its third version of a Freedom of Information bill. The same bill was also submitted to the Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media.

Apparently convinced that the administration had finally drafted a bill acceptable to the media and the public, Mr. Aquino himself announced its submission to Congress during his speech at the commemoration of the 112th anniversary of the newspaper Manila Bulletin, describing the Palace handiwork as “a substitute Freedom of Information Bill, which we believe addresses stakeholders’ desires to have more transparency and more access to information in government.” The word “substitute” is in reference to the bill’s being an alternative to the more liberal (and less problematic) Tañada bill the 14th Congress killed in 2010, about which the Aquino administration apparently has reservations.

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Double talk

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BENIGNO AQUINO III was in attendance at the launch of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in New York last September 20 where he also delivered the keynote address. Convened by the United States and Brazil, the OGP describes itself as “a new multilateral initiative to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.”

US President Barack Obama and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff are the co-chairs of OGP. The Philippines is one of only two Asian countries, the other being Indonesia, in the OGP steering committee, which has eight member countries: the U.S., Brazil, the UK, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines and South Africa. The Steering Committee members were supposedly selected on the bases of a country’s Fiscal Transparency, Citizen Access to Information, Disclosures Related to Elected Officials, and Citizen Engagement.

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His own boss

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NINETEEN years have passed since then Congressman Oscar Orbos filed the “Freedom of Information Act of 1992”. Several other, more or less similar, bills were filed in the Senate and the House from 1998 until 2008, when then House Speaker Prospero Nograles filed House Bill 3732, or “An Act Implementing the Right of Access to Information on Matters of Public Concern Guaranteed Under Section 28, Article II and Section 7, Article III of the 1987 Constitution and for Other Purposes.”

In 2009 the Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media filed Senate Bill 3308, or “The Freedom of Information Act of 2009.” It passed the Senate on third and final reading on December 14, 2009. On January 20, 2010, the bicameral conference committee reconciled conflicting provisions in the Senate and House bills. The Senate approved the reconciled bill on February 1. The bill went to the House on February 3, but lack of quorum prevented its discussion. Congress then went into recess in preparation for the 2010 elections. Supposedly assured of passing on the last day of the 14th Congress on June 4, 2010, the bill died when the House adjourned without discussing it for lack of quorum. A number of administration congressmen, including some listed among House Bill 3732 sponsors, were not on the floor, but were seen in the House premises, leading to suspicions that the House leadership had orchestrated their absence to prevent passage of its own bill.

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Pulling teeth

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IF THERE’S anything every reformer or revolutionary knows, it is how changing anything in this country is as difficult as pulling teeth — or how comparable it is to getting former Armed Forces comptrollers to explain their wealth, or to even remember where their wives have been.

Even revolutionaries, to whom convincing existing governments of the urgency of change isn’t as important as getting ordinary folk to join them, have a difficult time recruiting into social movements, no matter how valid, even the poorest of the poor and the most disempowered citizen. Filipinos may complain and whine about how bad things are, but doing something about it isn’t among their strengths.

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