By Alexis Romero, July 20, 2020; The Philippine Star

Manila, Philippines – The Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) wants the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill included in President Duterte’s list of urgent measures this year.

As early as 2016, Malacañang claimed that the FOI bill, which will require agencies to disclose information about their projects and other matters that involve public interest, was a priority of the President. The measure is still languishing in Congress even if the legislature is dominated by allies of the Palace.

Pending the passage of the measure, Duterte signed an executive order on FOI that covers offices under the executive branch.

“PCOO is committed to institutionalize the FOI across all branches of government by Congress passing legislation on access to information which will mandate the disclosure of government information in the interim,” PCOO Assistant Secretary Kris Ablan said in a statement.

“We have also requested the issuance of a certification of the FOI as an urgent legislative measure by the Office of the President or the inclusion of FOI as part of the President’s legislative agenda for this year 2020,” he added.

Ablan said PCOO has drafted a version of the FOI bill and has presented it to the Senate and the House of Representatives.

While the government claims to advocate a more open bureaucracy, some critics doubt the sincerity of the Duterte administration in promoting transparency.

A 2019 report by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism called Duterte “a most secretive President when it comes to the details of his wealth” because a copy of his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth for 2018 has not been released. It was the first time in the last 30 years that a President has not released a SALN, the report said.

Malacañang also drew flak recently for editing out Duterte’s tirades against broadcast network ABS-CBN in his July 13 speech in Sulu. The aired taped address and official transcript did not contain Duterte’s diatribe against the network, which was denied a franchise by the House legislative franchises committee last July 10.

The remarks that were edited out cast doubts on Malacañang’s claim that the President is neutral about the ABS-CBN franchise. The PCOO and Radio Television Malacañang remain silent on the issue.

The FOI bill was first filed during the 12th Congress but it has been bypassed because of concerns that it may be used to besmirch reputations. House Bill No. 05776 filed by Quezon City Rep. Alfred Vargas adopted the provisions proposed by PCOO including the creation of an FOI commission and a central appeals and review committee, and a mechanism that will refer and transfer requests to agencies that should act on the request.

“Due to the limitations in the current EO, the FOI-PMO has proposed a bill to further expand the scope of FOI in our government,” Ablan said.

“It is important that the FOI law be passed as soon as possible to empower our citizens for government participation by requesting information and to make our bureaucracy even more open,” he added.