Nograles, House dared:
Lead, ratify FOI now!

FARMER Jose Rodito Angeles did not know that he had a right to own the land he has been tilling for ages until someone from a non-government organization told him about the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP).

At that time in 2001, CARP has been running for 13 years but it took four more years for Angeles, 59, of La Castellana, Negros Occidental to secure the necessary documents to affirm his lawful claim on his land.

Malapit lang ang lugar namin sa kabayanan. Pero wala ni isang taga-DAR (Department of Agrarian Reform)  ang nagpunta sa amin para ipaalam ang tungkol sa programa. Hanggang sa may tumulong sa amin na NGO na nagsabing puwede pala kaming magkalupa,” says Angeles.  (Our place is just near the town proper but nobody from the DAR visited us to tell us about CARP. It was someone from an NGO who informed us that we could own our land.)

But knowing about one’s right is one thing. Asserting it is another. It would take four more years for Angeles and his 52 fellow farmer workers to get the documents to establish their collective claim over the 197-hectare Hacienda Grande, a sugar plantation in Barangay Robles in Negros Occidental. They just had to because they were up against serious odds.  The hacienda’s listed owner is Antonio Arroyo, uncle of First Gentleman Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo.

After persistent inquiries with the not-so-congenial personnel of the Registry of Deeds and costly research at the Securities and Exchange Commission, the farm workers learned in 2005 that over 90 percent of the estate could no longer be distributed to CARP beneficiaries. The property had by then been “chopped” into 40 titles and parceled out to 36 owners, mostly relatives of the First Gentleman.

The case of the farm workers of Hacienda Grande is not uncommon.  Accessing data and documents in government possession is the common obstacle that truth and rights seekers from the media, the poor and marginalized sectors and civil society groups have to grapple with, in the absence of a Freedom of Information law that would effectively and fully enforce the Constitution’s guarantees of public accountability and transparency, and the people’s right to know.

14-year advocacy

Over the last 14 years, vigorous efforts by a broad coalition of these groups will finally come to fruition. That is, if only the House of Representatives will ratify in the next two weeks a bicameral conference committee report that consolidates counterpart versions of the law that the Senate and the House of Representatives had approved on third reading. The Senate had done its part and ratified the report; it behooves the House to now do its part.
Otherwise, the Philippines might as well be consigned to the status of a “paper tiger” democracy, or one with just the theory and letter, but not the practice and enforcement, of the people’s right to know.

After all, 23 years had passed since a new Constitution upholding such right was ratified in 1987; a year after the first EDSA People Power revolt restored democratic processes in the country.

The 1987 Constitution’s Bill of Rights is clear and firm:  “The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized. Access to official records, and to documents, and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to limitations as may be provided by law.”

House to the rescue

Curiously, it was under the 14th Congress dominated by allies of outgoing President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo – who is given to issuing gag orders on government contracts allegedly tainted by corruption – that legislative work on the proposed FOI Act proceeded in earnest.

In April 2008, amid incessant calls of FOI advocates to enforce the Charter’s guarantees of transparency and access to information, Speaker Prospero Nograles of the administration Lakas-Kampi-CMD party urged House members to “set aside politics” and tackle on the floor House Bill 3732 or the FOI Act. Manila Rep.Bienvenido Abante Jr. and Quezon Rep. Lorenzo Tañada III, chair and member of the House Committee on Public Information, respectively, were the bill’s lead authors.

Nograles had described the proposed law as an effective tool in promoting transparency and in “attacking” the “deadly societal virus” of corruption.

In a public statement on April 2, 2008, he stressed the importance of the bill: “When there is full public disclosure of all government transactions involving public interest, subject to limitations under the proposed Act, the people will have full confidence and trust in their public officials and therefore there will be effective governance.”

Nograles would prove true to his words. On April 30, 2008, the bill hurdled second reading in the chamber. On May 12 2008, the House passed on third and final reading HB 3732 titled “An Act Implementing the Right of Access to Information on Matters of Public Concern Guaranteed Under Section 28, Article II, and Section 7, Article II, of the 1987 Constitution, and for Other Purposes.”

Even more important, a full two-thirds or 197 of about 220 House members voted in favor of  HB 3732, without a single objection or abstention.

Four days after the vote, Nograles spoke in an ecstatic tone: “The people’s right to know is sacred. We just passed the enabling legislation giving life to the constitutionally mandated right of access to information which also promotes people empowerment,”

In the same statement, he urged the Senate to pass its version of the measure, affirming that, “we all believe in the principle that the constitutional powers of government emanates from the people.”

Enthusiasm wanes

But the times may have changed, and Nograles’s commitment to pass the FOI Act may have waned. Why or what happened exactly is the mystery that FOI advocates could not decipher at the moment.

However belatedly, the Senate did its part, and eventually overran the House in the final leg of the legislation work. Eighteen months after the House of Nograles passed HB 3732, the 23 senators passed their counterpart FOI Act, Senate Bill No. 3308 on December 14, 2009.

The bicameral conference committee of the two chambers promptly set down to work on a consolidated, reconciled measure last January 20. The committee submitted its report on February 1, and on the same day, with bipartisan support and push from the Senate leadership, the senators ratified the FOI Act.

Yet somehow, for reasons not quite clear for now, the measure was waylaid in the House.  On its last session day last February 3 – before lawmakers went on a long break for the election campaign period – the House members failed to ratify the conference committee report that had been signed by all the members of the House panel.

This happened amid internecine floor intramural that day between administration lawmakers from Cebu who sought to block the oath-taking of a rival congressman that the Commission on Elections had declared to be the true winner in the 2007 elections.

Nograles himself said the House failed to ratify the conference committee report because the partisan intramural had triggered a debate on the presence or lack of a quorum in the chamber at the time.

Executive’s directive?

In truth, there was more to the House members’ inaction on the committee report. FOI Act author Tañada and his staff discovered that copies of the bicameral conference committee report had suddenly gone “missing” on February 3 when they checked on the copies for distribution to the House members.

Tañada and his staff were told that the copies were not lost but merely kept there as the session hall had to be rearranged to give way to the necrological services the previous day for former Representative Ernesto Nieva of Manila.

To be sure, only the copies of the bicameral conference committee report were kept literally under the tables of the House members; all other reports on the agenda of the House were prominently and properly placed on top of the tables.

Even more unusual, a congressman who sought a copy of the FOI Act was told by House officials that the instruction from the office of the House Secretary General was to “hold distribution” of the same on that day, the last day before Congress adjourned for the election campaign season.

“I have my own suspicions. I will base it on how it has been hard for me to accomplish what I was set to do,” Tañada told reporters when asked if he thought President Arroyo’s House allies deliberately attempted to prevent the measure from being ratified.

For his part, Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Teodoro Casiño said: “This measure would have been the antidote of the House of Representatives and the Senate to ‘executive privilege’ and definitely, the Executive does not want it.”

In Speaker’s hand

The inexplicable failure of the House to ratify the conference committee report has stolen precious time away from what could have been the certain enactment of the FOI Act last February yet.

But all is not lost, according to the authors of the measure and over 130 groups under the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition of media, civil society and non-government organizations supporting the FOI Act.

The Senate and the House have decided to resume session today, instead of on May 31, to facilitate the earlier canvass of the votes and the proclamation of the country’s next president and vice president.

In the next two weeks, therefore, the Coalition insists that House members may still ratify the conference committee report and swiftly transmit it to Arroyo for signature, and the law could be enacted as a true legacy to democracy of the 14th Congress.

The rules of House allow such a process, before Congress convenes in joint session to sit as the National Board of Canvassers, according to the FOI advocates. In this situation, however, they said Nograles and the House majority leaders will have to step up to plate and prove their leadership.

This is the belief of Bukidnon Rep. Teofisto Guingona III, who has been elected Senator in the 15th Congress. “A lot really depends on him (Nograles), he can make or break it. And I hope he will push for its ratification in the spirit of legacy.”

Said Guingona: “The FOI bill is the best gift that this Congress can give to the new administration and to the Filipino people for the promotion of transparency and good governance.”

Parañaque City Rep. Eduardo Zialcita, vice chair of the House Committee on Public Information, affirms the weight of the FOI Act. “This bill is not an ordinary measure but a legendary one. It would only take two minutes to ratify it.”

According to Zialcita, the House can still move to ratify the FOI Act even during the joint session of the two chambers for the canvassing of votes. “Technically, it can still be done. It can be taken up in the agenda for other matters.”

But Zialcita said the House leadership must ensure that there would be “a critical mass” of lawmakers that would support the bill and oppose any attempts to block its ratification.

Abante, chairman of the public information committee,  said he also wants to see the bill signed into law before the  14th Congress fades away. “It will in fact be a feather on my cap because I was one of those who sponsored the measure.”

However, Abante said he is unsure if the Rules of the House would allow the chamber to take up the measure while it is in a joint session with the Senate. “I have to check on the Rules. I think that you can’t tackle a measure from the House if the Senate is there.”

Rules allow it

To lawyer Nepomuceno Malaluan, spokesperson of the Right to Know, Right Now! Campaign, the House must rush to ratify and could do so well within the ambit of its own rules. He said the Rules of the House indeed “allow the ratification of the bicameral conference report on the FOI bill ahead of any other business on the day of the session’s resumption,” Malaluan said.

In particular, he cited that Rule X, Section 61of the House states: “(T)he consideration of conference committee reports shall always be in order, except when the Journal is being read, while the roll is being called, or the House is dividing on any question.”

Akbayan party-list Rep. Walden Bello, meanwhile, sees no complications in having the FOI Act ratified. “It only takes a simple process,” he said.

What worries Bello is not the legislative procedure, which could be swift and painless in fact, but the “forces outside of Congress” that are allegedly working to abort the bill.

“All I know is that a very high officer of the (House) leadership, on the day when we were about to get ratification last February, said explicitly that there were forces that were against the ratification and these were coming from outside Congress,” said Bello.

The party-list lawmaker suspects that these “forces” come from the Executive branch. “This is probably Executive… I think it’s coming from an institutional imperative of secrecy among executive agencies.”

The House’s failure to ratify, Bello said, could only bolster public distrust of the Arroyo administration and fuel talk that it wants to kill the measure because it wants to hide so many secrets from the people.

“Clearly, this would be a major reason for why a bill that has already come to the end of the legislative process is blocked in the end on orders of Malacañang. This is what the people would think… that the administration has something to hide,” said Bello.

Nograles: Kill bill?

While the clock is ticking fast on the long-awaited passage of the measure, FOI advocates in the country and across the globe have now focused their attention on the leaders of the House, and in particular, Nograles.

In their mind, the situation is a test of leadership: Will he kill the bill or give it life?

As of Tuesday, May 18, when the PCIJ sought him out, Nograles’s response to this query remains unsatisfactory.

“I’m not sure, it depends on the mood of the congressmen,” said Nograles, who is one of over a dozen incumbent House members who lost in the last elections. Nograles lost his mayoralty bid to incumbent Davao City Vice Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio.

Nograles said the measure might not be taken up on the floor during the joint session of Congress for the canvassing of votes. “We cannot tackle anything except the canvass.”

Malaluan and the FOI advocates, on the other hand, assert that the House may still ratify the measure today, when it convenes as a separate chamber to finalize the procedures for the canvassing of votes. The senators and congressmen are scheduled to sit in joint session as the National Board of Canvassers starting tomorrow (May 25) yet.

Then again, according to Nograles, if ever there’s time to tackle the measure, he said, “it has to be during the closing ceremonies (of the session) on June 4.”

The question that PCIJ posted next was: Will Nograles the Speaker push for the FOI Act to be ratified?

Nograles’s reply: “I’ll try. It depends on the mood of the congressmen. Maraming natalo, maraming nanalo. (Many have lost and many have won the elections).” – PCIJ, May 2010