AMITA O. LEGASPI, GMA News January 4, 2012 3:32pm

(Updated 5:13 p.m.) President Benigno Aquino III has ordered administration officials to “push ahead” with the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill, a landmark but much-delayed piece of legislation that will lift the shroud of secrecy over government transactions and data.

Aquino gave the instruction at a two-hour meeting with some members of the Cabinet earlier in the day, said Communications Group Undersecretary Manolo Quezon III at a press briefing on Wednesday.

“The President’s marching order to us was—and this was his words—to push ahead with Freedom of Information,” Quezon said.

“Basically everyone has been asking where does the President stand on this? Does the President have anymore reservations or questions or is he getting in the way of this? And I think this is as categorical an answer as everyone has wanted to hear and he is saying ‘push ahead’,” he added.

Aside from Quezon, others present during the meeting were Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, Energy Secretary Rene Almendras, Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning head Ricky Carandang, and presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda.

The only intervention the President had was the removal of the proposed Information Commission on the draft bill, Quezon said, adding that the President felt that the commission would just add another layer of bureaucracy.

“The overall intention of this whole exercise, besides to make it as democratic and consultative as possible, was precisely because we were all working under the view that we had to make the constitutional injunction making information a right of the public a living reality,” he said.

With the President’s approval, Quezon said the ball is now in the hands of the Congress.

He believed the passage of the bill will be expedited as there is now general consensus for it not only on the part of Congress and FOI advocates, but also of the Palace and other sectors.

Quezon, however, could not say if the bill would be certified as urgent, noting that the bill is already pending at the committee level in Congress. In June 2010, the House of Representatives failed to ratify the bill due to lack of quorum and protests from congressmen.

Maintain the momentum

Malacañang and FOI advocates decided to adopt the version of the bill filed by Deputy House Speaker Lorenzo Tañada and will just introduce their proposal as amendments. Quezon said this is to retain the integrity of the bill and maintain the momentum in the committee level.

“As you know it is pending in committee already and from the very start we were very transparent in saying that the view we were looking at, it will be introduced, instead of a competing bill, it would be introduced as a series of amendments either in the committee or plenary,” he said.

The FOI bill seeks to answer a Constitutional provision that guarantees the right of people to access to information and documents in the custody of the government.

Aquino earlier expressed optimism that the FOI bill will be enacted into law during his term, which will end in 2016. He, however, noted that despite the absence of a law, his administration will be as transparent as possible in all its dealings.

Author welcomes PNoy directive

Tañada, meanwhile, welcomed Malacañang’s announcement, saying it is now incumbent on both chambers of Congress to work for its passage before June 2012.

“Together with the champions and advocates in the House, I will organize talks with the Speaker and the Committee on Public Information Chair for the next concrete steps and definite timeline,” he said in a statement.

He lauded the strides taken by Aquino in making the different agencies more transparent and accountable in pursuit of good governance.  “An FOI law will further institutionalize what PNoy (Aquino’s nickname) has started and continue to pursue.”

In a text message, Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone said the House members will give weight to the Palace proposal in the same manner that they took into consideration the inputs of other stakeholders.

“[President Aquino’s] directive shows that he is still very much committed to the principles of transparency which is the main objective of the FOI bill,” he said. – KBK, GMA News