Senate to review exemptions in FOI executive order

Twenty-nine years since the first freedom of information (FOI) bill in Congress was filed, the Philippine Congress has yet to pass an FOI Act. Senator Grace Poe, who chairs of the Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media said that the 17th Congress is looking forward to pass the FOI bill next year saying that the law is not just about transparency and accountability, but also about creating an enabling environment for social participation.

During the first hearing of the 17th Congress on the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill, Senator Grace Poe said that the Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media seeks to scrutinize the 166 exemptions identified in President Rodrigo Duterte’s Executive Order no. 2 that relates to FOI.

These restrictions include national security, executive privilege, trade secrets, bank records, certain court records, detailed reports on how congressional funds were disbursed, and violation of personal privacy. The executive order also prohibits the release of the Statements of Assets and Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) of officials.

Although President Duterte in an unprecedented move issued the said executive order operationalizing the people's right to information within the executive branch, Poe said it is still necessary to create an FOI law for several critical reasons.

In her opening statement, Poe noted that the scope of the executive order only covers the executive department and agencies. She also added that the right to information in its substantive and procedural aspects needs to be clarified and defined, therefore needing a law that will provide a uniform protocol for all government offices.

In terms of access to information, “[an FOI] law compared to an executive order can impose well-defined exceptions to the right to information,” said Poe.

The Chairman of the Committee on Public Information and Mass Media said that through a law, the access of the Filipinos to government information can receive appropriations – an aspect that cannot be provided by a mere executive order.

Lastly, Poe said that one of the strengths of an FOI law is the provision of both administrative and criminal liability. “Fear of criminal sanctions would improve effectivity.”

Meanwhile, resource persons from various media organizations, concerned advocacy groups and the business community were in unison to support the measure that will enable citizens to participate in governance, uphold people's constitutional right to information, and advocate transparency, which is necessary to eliminate irregularities in our government.

Former Congressman Erin Tañada questioned the numerous exemptions included in the executive order saying that having such forfeits the essence of President Duterte’s directive to allow public access to government records and transactions.

Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas Chair Herman Basbaño proposed that personal files or records that form part of public records such as marriage, birth, and death certificates should be made available and accessible to the media, but excludes medical records of public officials. He added that the media should not be required to comply with the "prior written request" for them to relay news to the public.

Atty. Eireen Aguila of the Right to Know, Right Now Coalition, on the other hand suggested that there should be a mechanism for declassifying exempted documents. Aguila also raised the need to revisit Memorandum Circular No. 78 of 1964, which promulgates rules governing security of classified matters in government offices, adding that it “should not be used as a blanket authority for non-disclosure of important information.”

InterAksyon Editor in Chief Roby Alampay pointed out the usability of information and standardization of formats of information. He also stressed that archiving and record-keeping should be upgraded as these are crucial in accessing government records.
More importantly, Alampay mentioned that the FOI is not just about the media but is about the citizens’ access to information.

The FOI has been the longest pending bill in Congress, with the first known FOI bill to be filed by the late Senator Raul Roco. The bill was approved in the Senate during the 16th Congress but failed to get the same approval at the House of Representatives.
Poe is optimistic that the 17th Congress will be able to enact the FOI Law by 2017.