Civil society, media groups march to Philippine Senate to rush Freedom of Information Law

The clock is ticking fast, and the Senators are now facing judgment: Are they champions of the people's right to know?

The Senators have only 23 session days left before they adjourn for the May 2010 elections to pass their version of the Freedom of Information Act, a law that has been promised 22 years ago by the 1987 Constitution.

As well, over the last eight years, a broad coalition of independent media and civil society groups has waged a relentless campaign to pass the law to help combat corruption, enforce government accountability, and empower the people.

Senate Bill 3308 finally entered its period of interpellation last month, a full five months after the House of Representatives approved on third and final reading its counterpart legislation, House Bill 3732.

Failure by the Senators to act on SB 3308 before Congress takes a long break on February 5, 2010 for the national elections would be a grave reversal, even a fatal blow, to passage of the law.

Such failure would mean that advocates of the law would have to restart the process of legislation from step one, file the bills anew in both the House and the Senate with possibly less certain results, when the 15th Congress opens on June 30, 2010 yet. 

But the law's advocates, the Right to Know, Right Now! Network and its members from over 70 organizations of journalists, academics, workers, youth, businessmen, religious and civil society leaders, as well as some members of Congress, are not leaving any thing to chance.

After all, the advocacy work for a Freedom of Information Law has stretched on for years in the 12th, 13th and 14th Congresses of the republic.

Today, 9 November 2009, at the Senate, members of the multi-sectoral network will march to the Senate to push a singular clamor: "Pass Senate Bill No. 3308!" For the law to pass, the Senate must complete interpellation and amendments, and pass SB 3308 within November.

And to make sure their message is not lost on the senators, the marchers will carry all shapes and sizes of alarm clocks when they gather at the Film Center at 1:30 pm today, before marching to the Senate grounds for a program.

In a joint statement, the Right to Know, Right Now! network sounded out "an urgent call" for the senators to pass the law "without undue delay."

The network consists of public-interest groups, environmental protection advocates, independent media groups, print and broadcast journalists, farmers organizations and support groups, women's organizations, private and public sector labor unions, migrant workers, businessmen, religious organizations, academic institutions, and student and youth organizations.

"We claim this right in the best interests of our people, knowing full well that it is guaranteed by no less than our Constitution. We cannot overemphasize the decisive role this legislation will play in enhancing good governance and democratic institutions," the network stated.

Freedom of information, in "the prescient judgment of the Framers of the Constitution" and former Senator and Constitutional Commission member Blas Ople, "establishes a concrete, ethical principle for the conduct of public affairs in a genuinely open democracy, with the people's right to know as the centerpiece," the network said.

The passage of the law is long overdue, according to the network, because "it is a promise to the Filipino people that the Constitution assured in 1987 yet, or 22 years ago."

Even more important, the network said the passage of the law has clear future benefits: "It is a reform legislation that assumes greater urgency as we prepare for our first national automated elections on May 10, 2010."

"Our people need and truly deserve this law. It is as well a demand of the times. It is, in truth, a vote for good governance, democracy, and the people's right to know," the network stated, adding that, "only those less steadfast in the defense of good laws will stand in its way."

"We keep faith that the leadership of the Senate and the House of Representatives are firmly united with us in ushering Philippine politics and institutions into the light," it added.

Senate Bill 3308 builds on the House version of the bill that seeks to enforce and enable the access to information and transparency clauses in the Constitutions and ant-graft laws.

The proposed law defines procedures for disclosure by government personnel and agencies of documents and information in their custody, as well as standards for acting on requests for documents from citizens. Too, the proposed law proscribes limited exceptions and spells out sanctions for non-compliance.