MANILA, Philippines - The freedom of information (FOI) bill has reached the Senate plenary, 3 days before the second regular session of the 15th Congress ends.
Sen. Gregorio Honasan II, chair of the Senate public information and mass media committee, called the measure a "landmark piece of legislation" when he sponsored it on the floor during session on Monday.
"Government is an instrument owned by the people, and all information in the custody of the state should be available for people to access for their well-being and benefit," said Honasan in his sponsorship speech for the People's Ownership of Government Information (POGI) Act of 2012.
Honasan cited Article 3, Section 7 of the Constitution that provides for the public's right to information on matters of public concern.
He also warned government against protecting itself in a culture of secrecy.
"Today, the state is justified only up to the point that it serves the people, and its security and stability largely depend on the mutual accessibility of its agencies and the people it is expected to serve," Honasan said.
Honasan said the law will give government a healthy environment for decision-making, and afford the citizens the opportunity to look into the workings of all branches of government, "allowing them to better define their roles in the whole systems of democratic governance."
The bill, which substitutes 14 other FOI bills filed by various senators, is largely similar to Malacañang's version sent to Congress in January.
If enacted into law, all national and local government agencies would be mandated to respond to requests for information and records within 15 days.
Government agencies would also be required to post on their websites their officials' statements of assets, liabilities and net worth; monthly collections and disbursements; copies of bilateral and multilateral agreements; and statements of income and expenditures, among others.
However, information involving national security and ongoing negotiations with other countries may be withheld. Matters discussed during executive sessions are also included in the bill's list of exceptions.
The proposed law tasks the Department of Justice and the Office of the Ombudsman to deal with complaints against agencies that withhold information. Officials proven guilty face administrative and criminal sanctions, including a jail term of 1 to 6 months.
"The non-disclosure of information can only be justified if withholding it outweighs the harm of disclosure," Honasan said. "Other than that, the restriction on access to information, even on national security concerns or during emergencies, should not be permanent, automatic, or absolute."
The bill will undergo a period of interpellation, debates, and amendments before being approved in the Senate. Senate Bill 3208