By Wilnard Bacelonia

SPECIAL GUEST. Presidential Communications Office Undersecretary Cherbett Karen Maralit (center) shakes hands with Philippine News Agency executive editor Demetrio Pisco Jr. during the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the state news agency at the PIA Building in Quezon City on March 24, 2023. Representing Secretary Cheloy Garafil as guest of honor, Maralit was also welcomed by (from left) former News and Information Bureau Director Raymond Robert Burgos, Director Luis Morente, and Assistant Director Lee Ann Pattugalan. (PNA photo by Avito C. Dalan)

MANILA – An official of the Presidential Communications Office (PCO) on Monday expressed the agency’s all-out support for the passage into law of the Freedom of Information (FOI) bills.

Senators Ramon Revilla Jr., Sonny Angara, and Grace Poe, and Senate Majority Leader Joel Villanueva have filed separation versions of the proposal.

“Gusto po sana naming mapalawak pa ito kaya sa mga activities ng FOI Project Management Office ng (We want to expand this that’s why in the activities of FOI Project Manage Office of) PCO, we partner not only with the national line agencies, but also with the local government units,” PCO Undersecretary Cherbett Karen Maralit told senators during a public hearing conducted by the Committee on Public Information and Mass Media, chaired by Senator Robinhood Padilla.

Maralit said President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. showed his support for the FOI by attending the 14th International Conference of Information Commissioners (ICIC) held at the Philippine International Convention Center in Pasay City on June 19 to 21.

ICIC is a network of international right to information bodies that convene every year to discuss and push for the passage of FOI and right to information.

“’Yun pong presensya ni Presidente doon sa international conference na ‘yun speaks volumes. Malaking (The presence of the President in that international conference speaks volumes. It made a big) significance not only for the ICIC, but also for us lalo na ang members of the press at na-appreciate po nila kung paano na-express ni Presidente ang kanyang suporta sa pag-push ng FOI dito sa ating bansa (especially the members of the press and they appreciated how the President expressed his support in pushing FOI here in our country),” Maralit said.

The PCO currently implements the FOI Project mandated under Executive Order No. 2 issued by former president Rodrigo Duterte in 2016.

Under the program, the PCO is continuing its FOI campaign to add more to the 65 local government units (LGUs) which had already passed FOI local ordinances, according to Maralit.

She told the panel that 102,594 users were already registered in the Electronic FOI (eFOI) nationwide wherein 180,907 electronic and 53,209 standard/paper-based requests were filed.

Maralit said the program currently has a 55 percent success rate on processing requests with an average processing time of seven working days.

“All in all, masasabi naming effective naman po ang aming ginagawang pagpapatupad ng FOI program pero aware din naman kami na kailangan pa ng improvements para mapalawak pa ang pagpapatupad ng FOI sa ating bansa (we can say that our implementation of the FOI program is effective but we are also aware that improvements are still needed to expand its implementation in the country),” she said.

In his opening statement during the hearing, Padilla emphasized that every Filipino has the right to avail of their freedom of information from government entities, especially since their taxes pay the salaries of government employees.

“Karapatan ‘yan ng taumbayan. Sila nagpapasweldo sa atin… Higit sa tatlong dekada na rin po itong nakabinbin sa Kongreso (Getting information is the right of the Filipino taxpayers who pay our salaries… The FOI bill has been languishing in Congress for more than three decades),” Padilla said of the bill, which he noted was approved by the Senate as early as the 16th Congress.

“Ang pagsasabatas po ng FOI ay magpapatibay ng Executive Order sa pamamagitan ng pagpuno sa mga kakulangan, pagbibigay ng pondo sa mga mandato, at pagtukoy ng mga parusang kriminal (Making the FOI a law will strengthen the executive order by fulfilling the government’s mandate and institutionalizing penalties for violators),” he added.

Padilla said the FOI bill covers all branches of government, constitutional bodies, LGUs, government-owned and controlled corporations (GOCCs), government instrumentalities, government corporate entities, non-chartered GOCCs, and state universities and colleges.

He added the public has the right to get details of Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth of government officials, public interest transactions, documents or records such as budget expenditures, bidding contracts, procurement plans, debts, and contracts worth PHP50 million and up.

The FOI measure does not cover confidential details pertaining to national security or defense, law enforcement, foreign affairs, presidential communications privilege, and information in executive sessions of Congress. (PNA)