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FOI law to halt graft related to pandemic response, solons say

WITH the start of committee deliberations on the Freedom of Information (FOI) bills, lawmakers on Wednesday renewed their call for the immediate passage of the measure, saying the “Covid-19 pandemic has created more opportunities for corruption to flourish.”

House Deputy Speaker Bro. Eddie Villanueva said the country needs the FOI law “now more than ever before.”

According to Villanueva, the current pandemic has caused the government to have expanded budgets and acquire more loans in order to sustain Covid-19 response efforts.

“The large economic stimulus, the loans, the local and international contracts for vaccines and other health-care supplies and facilities are always in danger of being ‘cash cows’ for opportunistic persons,” he said.

The House Committee on Public Information has started deliberations of various FOI bills filed at the House of Representatives, including his House Bill 1975.

“I beseech my fellow lawmakers to expedite passing this measure. If we will not have this FOI bill urgently passed into law, we will just continue to expose our government resources to be devoured by scrupulous and rent-seeking individuals—to the detriment of our Filipino people. We need to raise our demands of transparency and accountability now more than any time before,” said Villanueva, the House Deputy Speaker for Governance and Moral Uprightness.

“Social and physical distancing in this Covid-19 pandemic does not stop corruption; conversely, it even opens opportunities for shady deals to flourish behind people’s backs. We badly need a mechanism to put officials accountable even while people are within the confines of their homes. The FOI will bridge that gap,” he added.

The FOI bill provides people the legal presumption in favor of access to information. This means that the government agency has the burden of proving that a certain document or information must not be disclosed based on a list of exemptions provided also in the bill.

Villanueva said the bill listed clear exemptions that will not be covered by the policy of full disclosure. Among these exemptions are information relating to national security, right to privacy on personal and sensitive information, trade and financial secrets as well as privileged communication. The measure likewise provides for the procedure of access by which citizens can obtain public information as well as legal remedies in case of denials.

“The free flow of information will also be our vehicle towards recovery. Unhampered access to information will lead to better policies, informed decisions of the people as well as fair level playing field for business firms and other economic entities,” added the CIBAC lawmaker.

The bill also galvanizes the policy of full disclosure in the government by obligating certain information to be mandatorily and automatically disclosed in government agencies websites or places of display.

These include the Sworn Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN), bids and bidding results for government projects, procurement contracts entered by the government either locally or internationally, bilateral or multilateral agreements, and loans from local and international financial institutions, among others.

There will be administrative and criminal liabilities for any government officer or employee who withholds information contrary to the provisions of the bill, said Villanueva.

Parañaque City Rep. Joy Tambunting, author of House Bill 644, said the adoption of a policy of full public disclosure of government transactions guarantees the right of the people to information on matters of public concern. As of March 31, Presidential Communications Undersecretary and FOI Program Director Kris Ablan told lawmakers they received a total of 87,417 FOI requests.

For the classification of eFOI users, 12,388 users (29 percent) were coming from the academe, 8571 (20 percent) were from the government, 4615 (11 percent) were from the local government, 2678 (6 percent) were from civil society organizations, 743 (1 percent) were from the media, and 13,739 (32 percent) were from other users.

According to Ablan, the success rate for FOI requests is at 48 percent.

He said a total of 4,206 FOI receiving officers have been designated across government agencies, while 520 agencies are currently onboard the eFOI portal.

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