Press Release
October 19, 2016

Sponsorship Speech of Senator Grace Poe
on the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill

Senate Session Hall

Mr. President, distinguished colleagues, magandang hapon po.

I stand here today to sponsor Senate Bill No. 1208, otherwise known as the "People's Freedom of Information Act of 2016." The said bill is a consolidation of fourteen (14) FOI legislation filed by our eminent colleagues, namely: Senators Honasan, Pangilinan, Cayetano, Escudero, Trillanes, Ejercito, Legarda, Zubiri, Angara, Aquino, Villanueva, Hontiveros, De Lima, and by this representation.

Our task today is to pass a freedom of information act in order to institutionalize the constitutional right of the people to information on matters of public concern and fulfill the State's mandate to implement a policy of full public disclosure of all matters involving public interest.

This is my second time to sponsor this bill, and hopefully the last. This proposed law is 24 years or one generation in the making, which compels us to finish the job during our watch, and not leave it to the next generation.

Mr. President, the Senate had not only tackled the FOI bill in the past; it had, in fact, approved it on March 10, 2014, unanimously. The House, however, failed to pass the pass the bill on third reading. Natakot ata sila na malalaman na ang mga pinakatatago nilang sikreto, kung kaya ayaw nilang ipasa kaagad ang FOI.

On July 23, the executive branch issued Executive Order No. 2, binding agencies under them to an FOI regime. A legislated FOI strengthens the executive FOI by filling the gaps, by funding the mandates, by providing for criminal penalties, by creating a uniform standard, by closing the loopholes, by clearly defining the exceptions, and above all, by meeting the demands of the people to create an antidote to irregularities. For example, to report on recent disturbing events, requests by journalists for drug war data were not attended to in violation of the EO, thus making the creation of a legislative measure imperative.

In the quarter of a century during which this measure was in limbo, the scandals that rocked our nation had always involved infidelity in the custody of public funds. However, the collateral casualties of stealing are more heart-wrenching: When billions are lost, millions go hungry; when billions are lost, millions go to schools without classrooms; when billions are lost, millions have to endure bad public service.

If there's one costly lesson we have learned from our past, it is this: Secrecy corrupts, and absolute secrecy corrupts absolutely.

There are five successful general principles (SGPs) of FOI laws around the world. Please allow me to enumerate.

First is to have a broad definition of information, and a legal presumption in favor of access to that information. Because openness is fundamental to the democratic life of the country, access to information should be a key feature of our government. This means that there is blanket coverage for all public information and that all official documents are presumed to be open to the public, unless expressly prohibited by the law. Our FOI bill provides for proactive disclosure, such that certain information must be published or accessible to the public, even without the public requesting for such information.

Sections 8 and 9 of our bill have enumerated information that should be immediately available and uploaded on an agency's website, such as the SALN of the president, vice-president, members of the cabinet, members of Congress, Justices of the Supreme Court, among others, shall be disclosed to the public in their official website. You see, Mr. President, our proposed law is not just about transparency and accountability, it is also about creating an enabling environment for meaningful social participation in public affairs.

Sa ilalim ng batas, pwede, halimbawa, kunin ang address ng mga bahay ng isang opisyal sa SALN. Pero kalabisan namang humingi pa ng litrato ng mga silid-tulugan o imbentaryo ng mga anik-anik sa loob ng bahay.

Second is the requirement of having limited and strictly construed exceptions, which are enumerated in Section 7 of our bill. We will put "Do not enter' signs", but in delineating no-go zones, we must see to it that they are clearly defined. These non-disclosure areas typically cover matters of national security, operational security, trade secrets, diplomatic security, and presidential privilege. Also included are information that could compromise law enforcement operations, or endanger the life of an individual, or constitute an unwarranted invasion of an individual's right to privacy.

I should stress that even if we advocate for access to information, we believe that the right of an individual to privacy is equally sacred. Hence, under section 10 our bill, the State is obligated to fully protect the right of privacy of individuals and ensure that the disclosure of personal data under the custody of the State shall be done in accordance with the provisions of the Data Privacy Act of 2012.

Under our bill, all these exceptions shall be strictly construed and none of these exceptions shall be used to cover up a crime or unlawful activity. We have also provided that all exceptions shall undergo mandatory review every three years for possible reclassification and disclosure.

The third trait of a successful FOI law is the creation of implementing mechanisms that cover all agencies. Thus, unlike the Executive Order, our FOI bill will cover everyone from the executive, legislative, judicial, government-owned and-controlled corporations, and even certain private individuals who have transactions with the government. Since each agency has a different department or office to which a person may request for information, we have provided under Section 11 that all government agencies shall prepare an FOI manual. The manual will be there to facilitate the effective implementation of the law. Its absence, however, cannot be used as an excuse to deny a request made in accordance with the FOI Act. This means, the FOI manual shall in no way add to the exceptions enumerated in our bill or provide for a tedious process in complying with the FOI bill as our FOI bill already provides for a uniform procedure for the access to information. Hindi naman po pwede na sa ilalim ng manual nila ay kailangan ng 12 signatories before information is made accessible to an individual. Sana kung artista pinapapirma nila e ok lang, sila pa ang magrerequest para sa autograph nila, pero hindi. Dagdag perwisyo ang dagdag na signatures.

Section 12 of our bill provides that a person will have to submit either personally, by mail, or through electronic means, a request to the government agency concerned. A person who is unable to make a written request, because of illiteracy or disability may make an oral request. Once the request is submitted, the government agency should help the requesting party free of charge and provide the information within 15 days. If the government agency decides to deny the request, in whole or in part, it shall also inform the requesting party within 15 calendar days of the grounds for denial and indicate the available remedies for appeal.

Again, let me remind our countrymen that 15 days may be long but certain information is already automatically uploaded in a website which can be easily accessed by our countrymen.

Will the requesting party have to pay anything? Yes. A government agency may charge reasonable access and processing fees.

The fourth trait of a good FOI law deals with efficiency and timeliness. For FOI to be effective, citizens must have what experts call "actionable data", which is data that is immediately usable to intervene on an urgent concern. Typically, what we see on government websites today are "after-the-fact" data. Ibig sabihin, imbes na impormasyon na makakapigil ng suntukan, ang datos na nakukuha ay yaong tapos na ang boksing. Under our bill, contracts and agreements involving an amount of at least P50 million shall be uploaded online and in full before the signing. Thus, data uploaded should not only pertain to consummated contracts but also that which will help prevent the consummation of disadvantageous contracts.

The fifth trait of a good FOI is the institutionalization of penalties for non-compliance or for violation of the FOI law. This is what we call the fear factor or our whipping stick. Without penalties, kung wala pong parusa, a law will have no teeth and will simply remain lip service to the constitutional provisions upholding the people's right to information.

Unlike an EO, our FOI can provide for criminal and not just administrative liabilities. Among the acts penalized are falsely denying or concealing the existence of information that should be disclosed; divulging or releasing information that is altered, tampered or modified; knowingly or wrongfully claiming an exception under the FOI law or the Constitution, when such claim is manifestly devoid of basis; and divulging or releasing information covered as an exception under the law. Our FOI bill also seeks to penalize private individuals who knowingly directed or induced or caused the commission of the foregoing acts.

However, to boost compliance of government agencies, we should create a system of incentives, for more good are wrought by the carrot than by the stick. Under Section 27 of our bill we have provided for a system of incentives and rewards. Meron din pong gantimpala ang mga sumusunod nang maayos. For example, may premyo sa "Most FOI Compliant Agency of the Year". Isang milyon na halaga ng bagong equipment. Bakit hindi?

The litmus test of an FOI law is how it helps the common people secure with ease, without help and without hassle, the documents he needs.

Kung gustong malaman ng publiko kung bakit kada taon may bagong sasakyan ang isang opisyal ng gobyerno nila o bakit lahat ng kinakasama ng barangay captain nila ay may negosyo kahit na wala talaga silang hanapbuhay para pagkuhanan ng kapital, e di dapat may karapatan tayong suriin ang SALN ng mga opisyales nito kung ito ba ay nakalagda ng tama o hindi. Kung gustong malaman ng publiko kung saan napunta ang donasyon para sa mga nasalanata, dapat may karapatan din tayong suriin ang financial documents ng DSWD or kung anong mga ahensya na namamahala sa mga donasyon.

Sa laki ng binabayad nating tax, nararapat lang na itanong ng ating mga kababayan--ni Juan at Maria kung saan napupunta ang nakakaltas sa sahod nila. Magkano ba ang magpagawa ng kalsada? Bakit kada taon parehong kalsada ang laging pinapagawa o binubungkal?

Let me stress, though, that access to these documents or information should be in a language easy to comprehend, which is why the Senate's FOI version made mandatory the use of plain language in official communication. What use is information that is easily accessible if it is not easily understood?

Mr. President kung hindi naman maintindhan ng ating mga kababayan ang dokumentong binigay sa kanila, balewala ang imprmasyon. Dapat madali itong maintindihan kahit pa walang abogado.

Admittedly, this bill, when implemented, will incur expenses. Freedom of information does not mean that such information will come free. May gastos po sa gobyerno. That is why we provided that the amount necessary to carry out the provisions of this bill shall be charged against the agencies' current budget and shall later be included in the annual General Appropriations Act.

Be that as it may, I strongly maintain that benefits far outweigh the costs of implementation. Studies show that FOI spending bears high social returns. Investments on FOI resources and technology are needed, and must be mandated, otherwise what good is a law if it ends up as an unfunded mandate?

Mr. President, my dear colleagues, the FOI Act is long overdue. Let us not delay its passage anymore as it has been delayed long enough.

I would like to thank the advocates, even here. I think as a junior senator, Sen. Villanueva, Sen. Zubiri and all those I've mentioned authored this more than a decade ago. I would also like to thank the Right to Know, Right Now Coalition who has always been with us to provide us with technical advice as well as feedback.

Passing the FOI law is just the beginning. Beyond the law, we need to cultivate a culture of transparency and accountability. Lahat ay dapat makilahok. We need to create an environment where ordinary citizens are fearless enough to ask important questions and have the audacity to demand the truth. We should dare them to ask; dare them to act. Let us empower our people, and in doing so, improve our public institutions.

Maraming salamat po.

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