Information Bill Gains Ground as Senate Starts Plenary Talks

A PRIORITY measure seeking to ensure easy access to state information was yesterday tackled at the Senate plenary session.

"Government is an instrument owned by the people, and all information in the custody of the State should be available for the people to access," Senator Gregorio B. Honasan, public information and mass media committee chairman, said in his sponsorship speech, recommending approval on second reading of the Freedom of Information (FoI) bill.

The FoI bill is part of the administration’s platform on transparency and has been identified as a priority by the Legislative Executive Development Advisory Council.

"If we have freedom of information… high-placed syndicates and conspiracies, and excesses of partisan politics would be drastically reduced, if not eradicated," Mr. Honasan said.

Under the bill, "every Filipino citizen has a right to and shall, on request, be given access to any record under the control of a government agency."

The bill requires national agencies, branches and all local offices to act on requests for information or data within 15 days.

Mr. Honasan, however, said: "There are understandable exemptions, especially in areas involving foreign policy and national security, which have been used to justify decisions sometimes resulting in unnecessary loss of life and limb and even destruction of entire communities."

SB 3183 listed cases when information may be withheld, namely, if a disclosure "may cause grave damage to national security... or may weaken the... position of the government in ongoing bilateral or multilateral negotiations," it states.

In withholding information, the Executive, however, is mandated to specify a reasonable period to declassify such information, the bill said. Agencies are also required to post the Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth of officials, and income and expenditures, among others, on their Web sites.

But agency heads have the discretion on privileged and confidential information, according to SB 3183.

"If there are exceptions… it must be proven that… it will clearly be more beneficial to public interest to withhold information than to disclose it," Mr. Honasan said.

SB 3183 said complaints on withholding information may be filed either with the Department of Justice or the Ombudsman.

Officials who withhold information without basis, provide false information or destroy documentation may be slapped with administrative and criminal sanctions, it added.

The counterpart bill is still pending at the committee level in the House of Representatives.

Antonio Siegfrid O. Alegado
Posted on June 04, 2012 10:25:17 PM