Nograles, House Dared: Lead, Ratify FOI Now!

Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

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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.”

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