Not earnest about FOI: NoToMar in 2016

Yellow Pad
Nepomuceno Malaluan

Posted on November 16, 2015

Last Oct. 26, Daang Matuwid Coalition and Liberal Party presidential candidate Manuel “Mar” A. Roxas II joined TV5 journalists in their program Happy Hour. Among the topics discussed was the continued pendency of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill in the House of Representatives.

His response to the preliminary question on FOI by Mr. Roby Alampay, Editor-in-Chief of both BusinessWorld and InterAksyon, was on even ground. “It’s in Congress,” was his short answer. From that point on, however, it was as if Mr. Roxas stepped into a quicksand.

Asked why FOI hasn’t been passed, his response was: “I think that the Congressmen have had several hearings in committee; I’m not sure if it’s on the floor, and so they’re debating the matter, I would think.” He thought wrong.

Yes, the measure is on the floor -- a consolidated version was approved by the Committee on Public Information on Nov. 24, its appropriation provision was approved by the Committee on Appropriations on March 5, and the Committee Report was filed for plenary action on May 25 -- but the House is NOT debating the matter. House Speaker Feliciano “Sonny” R. Belmonte, Jr. and House Majority Leader Neptali M. Gonzales II have not touched it since, not even to schedule its sponsorship.

The next question: “Is six years not enough to pass a cornerstone legislation that you in the Daang Matuwid tandem promised?” Here, Mr. Roxas indicated that that he was ready to use every excuse. “Well there are many versions that were filed of the FOI,” he said. This is flimsy because even if there were 24 FOI Bills filed, these were in fact very close to each other if not identical, with only three or so bills that can be considered distinct.

Mr. Alampay cut Mr. Roxas in his line of excuse, and gave a little refresher on what transpired during the 15th Congress: “Sir, just to be clear, I am asking about the Malacañang version. By the second year people were clamoring, where is FOI. And the Palace said we have to discuss with the legislators and so on, because we need something palatable across spectrum, because you don’t understand politics, it’s much more messy. That was granted. So I’m talking about the Malacañang version; the compromise version that Malacañang said will be passed and at the very least the version that President Aquino promised to the World Bank in the meeting last year, when he said ‘I guarantee it will be passed within my administration.’”

“Well it’s still not yet the end of his administration, so let’s give him the time to finish his,” Mr. Roxas quipped, to which the follow-up question was asked: “You’re saying sir that it will pass?”

There was nothing in respect to the current administration that Mr. Roxas could commit, and so he shifted the discussion to himself. “Well I am for the FOI, I don’t know exactly what the provisions are of the current version, I know for example that current members of the legislature want a counterpart right to reply and other amendments that are not acceptable and yet these are at the forefront of the discussions at the floor or at the committee level. So I am for FOI, if it is not passed in this Congress I would continue to be in favor of it and support it. There’s nothing like sunshine to kill germs...”

But will not being able to pass the FOI Bill in the current administration amount to a failed promise on the part of Daang Matuwid? To summarize Mr. Roxas’s perspectives on this point:

• President Benigno S. C. Aquino III and Mr. Roxas are in favor of greater transparency and have held themselves up to a standard of transparency, whether in FOI, or in some other measure, or in a combination of measures.

• The Right of Reply is an FOI issue that has not been resolved at the plenary level, which is a factor in not being able to pass the FOI.

• Not being able to pass FOI within six years cannot be considered a failure because there are real issues being discussed.

More crucial, Mr. Roxas let the cat out of the bag: “So the point is, here’s the President not pushing a piece of legislation to take into consideration your view of your being against the right to reply, in other words, kung gusto lang ni Presidente na ipasa ito to please you, papasa ito pero may right of reply ito (if the President just wants to pass it to please you, he’ll pass it but it will have a right of reply).”

I cannot claim to speak for the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition, as there are coalition members politically committed to defend the Aquino administration. But I can speak for many in the coalition in expressing both fundamental disagreement and disappointment with the Aquino administration and Mr. Roxas on FOI.

First, unlike Mr. Roxas, we see the passage of the FOI Bill as a necessary component of transparency.

It cannot be just “in some other measure, or in a combination of measures,” and the reason is the rights-based approach of the FOI law, and not just the policy-based and selective approach of this administration’s transparency measures.

Second, we were not demanding a guarantee of passage of the FOI Bill, but were looking forward to an earnest push by the President. That was the basis of asking for inclusion in the State of the Nation Address speeches, that never happened.

Mr. Roxas’s confirmation that the President is really not pushing this legislation is bad enough -- by one stroke he disclosed the hypocrisy of the administration’s position on FOI and diminished the efforts of its allies in Congress, including that of his Vice-Presidential candidate’s. Not content, he made it even worse by making the excuse that such non-support is in consideration of media’s position against right of reply. Let the battle on the right of reply be fought in Congress, but with the President on the side of the FOI advocates, and it would have been a credible and laudable position.

Third, Mr. Roxas’s speaking beyond this administration and into his presumptive presidency, when a credible push at the present can be done by him, betrays his own lack of commitment to FOI. His ticket’s campaign manager is the Speaker of the House, on whose authority and power rest the calendaring of deliberation and voting on the measure. Mr. Roxas could have called on the Speaker and his party to back the FOI. He could also have called on the President to convert his non-support to decisive support.

Finally, and with all due respect, I sense in Mr. Roxas the kind of arrogance that also characterize the governance style of Mr. Aquino in dealing with policies and people’s advocacies.

Subsequent to the exchange on FOI, the discussion shifted to the issue of reduction of the income tax rate.

While justifying Mr. Aquino’s contrary position, he referred to the advocates of the tax reduction as the “peanut gallery.” My observation is, when people’s positions coincide with the policy choices of the administration, the people are the “boss,” but when there is disagreement with advocacies, the people is the peanut gallery.

With the foregoing considerations, as an FOI advocate exercising my voter’s right, I say #NoToMar in 2016.

Nepomuceno Malaluan is Co-Director of the Institute for Freedom of Information, a partnership program of the Action for Economic Reforms (AER) and the Philippine Center of Investigative Journalism. He is Co-Convener of the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition, a network of more than 150 organizations that is at the forefront of the campaign for the passage of a Freedom of Information Act in the Philippines. He is a lawyer with academic background in economics.