Elegy: FOI's slow death under PNoy

Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at Aug 26 2015 05:44 PM | Updated as of Aug 27 2015 01:44 AM

When the Right to Know Right Now (R2KRN) coalition proclaimed the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill dead in the 16th Congress, I wondered if the declaration was premature. Could renewed clamor prod President Benigno Aquino III to finally declare the bill urgent?

Another paragraph also raised my brows. The coalition said it would be unfair to continue giving House FOI champions the burden of taking political risks in order to overcome the leadership’s refusal to push for FOI.

“Champions are expected to take political risks,” was my thought bubble. But I come from a more militant point of view than other folks in the R2KRN coalition and so decided to ask co-convenor Nepo Malaluan some questions. There’s always room for enlightenment.

I’m going to share Nepo’s replies verbatim. Before that, however, let me acknowledge the very hard work the coalition has done in more than 15 years of campaigning for the passage of the FOI Act.

It has has held forums, issued statements, ran pooled editorials, participated actively in the legislative process – the latter not a task for the faint-hearted and the sensitive. It has launched mass actions and signature campaigns -- more than 17,000 signers on a Change.org petition and 20,000 more on the paper version. It has organised advocacy runs, filed its own bill by way of Indirect Initiative, produced information materials, initiated dialogues, and coordinated work with allies in Congress and the executive.

The coalition came to this sad conclusion:

"We confront the reality that our institutions, particularly the Presidency and Congress, are not ready to overcome their selfish fears and take the side of public interest on the issue of FOI."

Sounding the death knell for the FOI bill isn’t a full retreat. Nepo explains it as an alternative course of action and one started even as the coalition pushed for passage of the FOI Law.

This is what the coalition said in its statement:

“FOI lives on. It may take a different form, emphasis and strategy, but its essence will remain the same: we assert the right to information as a fundamental mechanism in the struggle for a rights-based governance with greater transparency and accountability, less corruption, broader and informed peoples participation, and development outcomes that are sustainable and just.”

Here are Nepo’s answers to my queries. I just broke down the pargraphs for easier reading:

1) Why is the coalition issuing the death certificate this early?

“It is not early.

There is hardly any more time if we go by legislative calendar. Session adjourns October 10 to November 2, and resumes session again from November 3 to December 18. It adjourns again December 19 to January 17, and resumes session from January 18 to February 5. Then a long break for the elections, to come back on May 23 mainly for the canvassing of votes and proclamation of the new president.

This is where prioritization by the highest leadership is important, and the declared top priorities are BBL and the budget. All others in the "priority list" are really secondary.

Can we get them to give FOI equal priority, such that they will take it up alongside/at the same time they take up and approve BBL and the Budget?

2) Have there been clear indications -- other than (Deputy Speaker Neptali Gonzales ) Boyet's remarks -- say, from the Palace -- that it is going nowhere?

“It's not like we are demanding such high prioritization only now. We demanded it from day one of this administration. We did not see it for the past five years (other than lip service).

“You can google how after taking his oath PNoy changed his tune by raising ever-mutating concerns early in his term. He created a study group, which we painstakingly engaged for a year to arrive at a balancing of concerns (which our friends in Makabayan reduced to calling a watered-down Malacanang bill).

“PNoy's supposed endorsement in Feb 2012 was not accompanied by push on the ground, unlike in other measures such as sin tax and even RH. His allies saw it as mixed signals, allowing Evardone and House leadership to dribble FOI to death in the 15th Congress.

“At the start of the 16th it was not included in the priorities. It took PNoy to be cornered by a question from Ramon Del Rosario at the Daylight Dialogue in Malacanang before the 2014 SONA, to for the first time in his term personally say something positive about FOI passage.

"It was only after the 2014 SONA that it was included in the list of Malacanang's priorities, even if he still did not mention it in the SONA itself.

“For what it's worth, the statement at the Daylight Dialogue provided some Malacanang close allies who are supportive of FOI to join the push at the House (particularly Reps Dina Abad and Leni Robredo, and Usec Manolo Quezon, which provided political counterweight to allow Committee chair to move positively). “Added to the coalition and House champions (those pushing independently of Malacanang) work, the Bill passed through the committee.

“I could tell you there was really hard work behind the scenes that went into that -- coordination meetings that goes from substantive unities to the specific motions and manifestations to be made, and mustering the votes. The Makabayan opposition is the easy part, although they did contribute to the slow process at the TWG level, and also undermined the integrity of the bill through conclusions that are attractive to those who don't have the time to objectively look at the fine print.

“The biggest hurdle was the counter-signals from Speaker and Boyet, and we confirm the account by Walden."

WHY PNOY IS SCARED OF FOI

Bello, Akbayan party-list representative who resigned due to disagreement with the group's decisions, said the problem lies with Malacanang. He described Belmonte as "a pliant ally of the president" and said Aquino's silence on FOI "spoke volumes" to Congress.

Bello also accused Malacanang of "playing a double game" in the 15th and 16 Congresses, sending the FOI champion, Undersecretary Manuel L. Quezon III to give assurances while letting other emissaries whisper of the President's major problems with the bill.

Walden said representatives and senators "bent over backwards to accommodate Malacanang’s legitimate national security concerns" -- something the militant Makabayan bloc opposed. He said the Palace's representatives had raised no more objections to committee versions of the bill.

What has prevented people like Belmonte and Aquino from following through on their promises to pass FOI?

Here is the root of the reluctance, according to Bello:

"I think their strong hesitation stems from the generalized fear of many politicians that the legislated transparency of FOI may work against them in some undefined way at some point. In the case of the House leadership, it is probably a case of generalized fear."

"In the case of President Aquino, however, it is probably more than generalized fear. It probably stems from his desire to prevent access to documents and other material that may give him an image different from that he wants to leave behind, if not make him and some of his subordinates vulnerable to criminal and civil charges for felonious deeds committed while in office."

Nepo said getting the bill out of committee is one thing. Getting it even calendared in plenary and much more voted on with sufficient time is another story.

Discussing the President's silence, he said:

"A mention of FOI at at last SONA would have been critical, and I'm sure PNoy and Malacanang know it.

“He did not mention it. Instead, his spokespersons point to the budget message, which to me is just a cover. PNoy could also certify it urgent; he says he wont because the constitution requires an emergency but you very well know it's a political discretion, as it is used when convenient."

Is the coalition making it too easy for the Palace?

Even with another mass campaign wave, the FOI bill could still die. But it would have given some discomfort for those responsible. I asked Nepo: In bowing out this early, isn't the coalition encouraging similar behavior from whoever succeeds Mr. Aquino?

His response:

"We are making it too easy for the Palace by declaring the FOI Bill dead?

“On the contrary. What will be too easy is if we allow ourselves to be strung along up to the point when any cry of betrayal is already moot since the elections is done.

“We did not just declare the FOI Bill dead; we unequivocally put the responsibility for killing it on PNoy and Belmonte. We gave up on PNoy. We gave up on the House of Representatives. We gave up on the institutions. Certainly it is not our intent to give those responsible comfort.

I noted this passage: "... the coalition feels it unfair to continue to burden our House FOI champions with the expectation to take political risks in order to overcome the leadership's refusal to push for FOI."

I asked Nepo: Don't major, urgent causes come with political risk? Does this passage have anything to do with the champions' political future with the administration's coalition come election period?

His reply:

"No, we did not mean political future with the administration's coalition. We mean the readiness to do what it takes -- such as scuttling BBL or budget deliberations to compel the House leadership and PNoy to negotiate on FOI passage. Is there anyone ready to do that? (During the 14th Congress what it required towards the endgame was for someone to scuttle the Presidential canvassing to force a negotiation on FOI.)

"We recognize the work of our allies, but how far they will take it is a leadership call and not for us to demand. We can only offer our full support should they do so."

I am not a lobbyist and thus, not privy to some nuances of engagement within the system. I asked Nepo to expound on where the FOI campaign was headed for.

He replied:

"What is lost in your questions is the other side of the statement -- FOI Practice. We are serious about this shift in focus, and this will be something we will pursue systematically and doggedly.

"The serious gaps in FOI that can be comprehensively addressed by legislation, which was the path we took for more than 15 years, we can alternatively struggle to address by FOI Practice. (We did have occasional conversations on Direct Initiative, but this is another very difficult route.)

"There are trade-offs. This alternative focus on FOI Practice allows for incremental changes, rather than a one-off big change through legislation. But this can also be rewarding, and can give as much discomfort to the centers of power.

"You mentioned earlier another wave of mass campaign directed at the legislative push. That is no small matter; it requires much time and resources. This is time and resources that we can put to FOI Practice, and we are ready to show this can have great impact as well.

"In the 14th and 15th Congress we fought the legislative route up to the very end. We may not have done enough, but we also felt the institutions failed us. We are prepared to go a different route this time, and it is not a matter of whim.

"The coalition does not see our legislative efforts lost. We would like to think that we have developed a strong and broad coalition. Whatever shortcomings we have, and there would be many, we would like to think as well that we were able to reach some people.

"It is from these foundations built from our legislative advocacy that we take the road of FOI Practice."

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.