MANILA, Philippines – Quezon Rep. Erin Tañada hinted yesterday that President Aquino is open to certifying the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill as urgent.
Tañada raised this possibility after former Manila Rep. Benny Abante Jr. warned lawmakers that without an FOI law, as much as P400 billion would be lost to corruption this year.
Abante said he based his figure on a study of corruption watchdog Transparency International, that says corrupt public officials and employees, and contractors and suppliers, pocket at least 20 percent of the annual budget “because of lack of transparency in government contracts and transactions.”
The country’s national budget for 2013 is P2.06 trillion.
In a television interview, Tañada, principal author of the FOI bill, said Aquino is monitoring the deliberations on the measure in the House of Representatives.
“He is watching how the process will go. If we can get the bill to a second-reading vote, I think he will act appropriately,” he said.
Tañada said a presidential certification would definitely expedite the approval of the measure.
“Even if we have only four session days to go before we adjourn next week for the elections in May, we can still do it because we have more sessions in June when we reconvene,” he added.
Congress will go on a long four-month break for the election campaign next weekend and will convene for four days starting June 3 before adjourning again.
In warning lawmakers that up to P400 billion would be lost to corruption, Abante, one of the authors of the FOI bill in previous Congresses, said bureaucrats would “not fear public scrutiny without a law guaranteeing access to government documents.”
“Giving Filipinos their right to information empowers them. It is the necessary first step in promoting genuine accountability and transparency in government. Continue to ignore that and we continue to lose billions in public funds through secret deals and under-the-table transactions,” Abante said.
He said the P400 billion that could go to corrupt public officers, contractors and suppliers this year is equivalent to the “combined budgets of the departments of education, health, agriculture, and social welfare – enough to ensure that a huge portion of the populace is given access to basic social services, food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and education.”
Abante, former chairman of the committee on information, urged his former colleagues in the House to exert all efforts to have the FOI Bill approved.
He pointed out that it is ironic that the Philippines, Asia’s first democratic republic, should lag behind its neighbors in legislating a freedom of information measure.
“Nearly a hundred countries around the world have FOI laws. Indonesia and Thailand have it, and Jordan in the Middle East has it. It is unfortunate that the Philippines could not enact its own FOI law,” said the former Manila lawmaker.
Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) Secretary Herminio Coloma, meanwhile, said that despite the absence of the FOI law, the present government remains transparent.
During the launching of the Kapihan sa Ilocos in Bauang, La Union last Tuesday, Coloma said the Aquino government has set the standard for transparency by having the most number of agencies that display their budget allocation and its usage on their websites. – With Eva Visperas