(Supreme Court of the Philippines}

(Supreme Court of the Philippines}

MANILA (Mabuhay) – Even Supreme Court (SC) justices will not be spared by the proposed Freedom of Information (FOI) bill once it is passed in Congress.

In a press conference on Tuesday, Akbayan Representative Ibarra “Barry” Gutierrez, an author of the bill, said the bill is clear that even justices are required to make public their statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN).

“They really have no choice. In the law, we said that the SC has to upload their SALNs. They cannot willfully violate the law,” Gutierrez said.

The high court is very strict about releasing the magistrates’ SALN, saying in a 2012 resolution that the public’s right to information is not absolute.

“While providing guarantee for that right, the Constitution also provides that the people’s right to know is limited to ’matters of public concern’ and is further subject to such limitations as may be provided by law,” the high court said.

Gutierrez said the FOI bill, if passed, will make moot the Supreme Court’s resolution on the SALN guidelines.

“A resolution cannot be higher than the law,” he said.

The tribunal made the ruling setting the SALN guidelines after Chief Justice Renato Corona was impeached by Congress on his failure to disclose his wealth.

Asked if justices may be impeached if they fail to follow the bill’s provisions, Gutierrez agreed, citing culpable violation of the Constitution as a ground for impeachment.

“The FOI requires SC justices to make available their SALN which is a constitutional provision. If they refuse, they not only violate the law but also the Constitution,” Gutierrez said.

The FOI bill, consolidated from 24 versions, passed the committee level in the House on Monday. The public information committee took a year of technical working group meetings to consolidate and approve the bill.

The bill will then be tackled at the appropriations committee for sources of funding before it moves on to the plenary for debates and amendments.

Gutierrez said they plan to tackle the bill in the plenary mid-2015.

According to the approved bill titled “An Act to strengthen the right of citizens to information held by government, “the State recognizes the right of the people to information on matters of public concern and adopts and implements a policy of full public disclosure of all its transactions involving public interest, subject to the procedures and limitations as provided by this Act.”

The bill said public disclosure is mandatory for all government agencies, including executive, legislative and judicial branches, constitutional bodies, local governments and their agencies, regulatory agencies, chartered institutions, government owned and controlled corporations, government financial institutions, state universities and colleges, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Philippine National Police, all offices in Congress, Supreme Court and all lower courts.

Access to information is a legal presumption in government, the bill said, adding that the government agencies will be the ones tasked to prove that the information requested is exempted from disclosure.

The bill sets the following exemptions to the public disclosure policy:

Information requested is authorized to be kept secret under an executive order, provided that information directly relates to national defense and security, foreign affairs, the revelation of which will affect the conduct of such matters

Information are records of minutes, advice and opinions expressed during decision-making or policy formulation invoked by the President to be privileged information. Only after formulation of policy and decisions will the information be released to the public

Information pertains to internal and/or external defense, law enforcement and border control, the disclosure of which would affect operations involving such matters

Information are drafts of the following: orders, resolutions, decisions, memoranda, or audit reports by any executive, administrative, regulatory, constitutional, judicial, quasi-judicial body in the exercise of their adjudicatory and/or audit function

Information is obtained by a Congress committee in executive session

Information pertains to personal information of a person from public or private sector, and its disclosure would constitute unwarranted invasion of his or her personal privacy

Information on trade secrets and commercial or financial information or intellectual property, the disclosure of which would prejudice interests of the party involved

Privileged communications in legal proceedings by law or by Rules of Court

Information is exempted by law or Constitution

Information is the premature disclosure of which will likely lead to fraud, manipulation or other unlawful acts or schemes involving currencies, interest rates, securities or the commodities market that will likely frustrate the effective implementation of an action by an government agency that regulates or deals with currencies, interest rates, securities, commodities or financial institutions

The bill said government agencies must comply with the request within 15 working days from receipt, but the period may be extended if the information requested will require a thorough search of the government agency’s office.

The bill also wants government agencies to set up and maintain a website that would make public its transactions.

Failure to comply with the provisions of the bill is tantamount to administrative liability, or gross neglect of duty that constitutes to administrative and disciplinary sanction, as well as criminal liability, or a penalty of one month to six months imprisonment and dismissal from service.(MNS)