By Sheila Manalac, News Editor
The House committee on Public Information, chaired by Eastern Samar Representative Ben Evardone, conducted its first hearing on the Freedom of Information (FOI) bills proposed two years ago.
On Tuesday, the committee approved the FOI bill proposed by principal author, Deputy Speaker Lorenzo “Erin” R. Tañada 3rd, without the controversial “right of reply” (RoR) provision.
Of the 21 members of the committee, 17 agreed and three were against the bill, and one abstained. The panel gave the bill the “go signal” and will now be sent to the plenary for further debates.
The FOI bill now needs to gain votes from all House members before it reaches its second and third readings. After which, the president signs it before becoming a law.
The bill faced controversial issues in the recent months after accusations that politicians from the president down to the house committee head are lobbying against the bill.
In a report by The Manila Times on Monday, a source close to the president disclosed that the bill isn’t going anywhere because of Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr.’s strong opposition.
“The Cabinet official told me that the Executive Secretary doesn’t like the FOI because he doesn’t want the minutes of the Cabinet meetings made public. He’s scared of the media,” the source said in a text message sent to The Manila Times.
Reports of committee leader Rep. Evardone are also circulating, with Akbayan party-list Rep. Walden Bello, FOI bill co-author, appealed to Evardone to take a “more constructive” approach in discussing and voting on the bill.
“You know in Congress, the chairperson of a committee has so much control on whether a bill will be passed or not. We appeal to Congressman’s Evardone’s sense of fairness to have this measure approved,” the party-list lawmaker said.
Evardone failed to hear the FOI bill last year and has repeatedly promised to hold a hearing on the bill earlier this year. His reasons for the delay included “prioritization of other bills” and “lack of a room to use” for the committee hearing.
However, Evardone remains steadfast in stating that he has done all measures to speed up the process.
“I’m confident that this [the FOI bill] will be voted upon. Nakausap ko na rin si Congressman Antonino. I told him I have no choice but to put his proposal to a vote. Sabi naman niya, he’s prepared,” Evardone said in an interview with GMA News.
The controversial RoR provision was also being argued, with Nueva Ecija Rep. Rodolfo Antonino, an advocate of the right of reply provision, insisting that the bill should include the the RoR to avoid “demolition jobs” that can demolish or damage the reputation of other people.
Even as the FOI bill crawls to become law, the benefits that the public will reap are important and can change corrupt practices in government.
The bill aims to make government transactions and data available to public.