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By Christian V. Esguerra, Jocelyn R. Uy Philippine Daily Inquirer

There’s a new reason why congressmen can’t seem to pass the freedom of information (FOI) bill.

House Deputy Majority Leader Miro Quimbo on Tuesday blamed the campaign season for the absence of many of legislators from the deliberation of key measures such as the FOI bill on the floor.

“The problem really today is it is already the campaign period and many of our colleagues are already campaigning, especially those who are running for other positions,” he said in Filipino.

Session was suspended on Tuesday without the FOI measure being taken up. The chamber now has five

session days left. Candidates for local positions are not allowed to campaign until March 30, while the campaign period for national bets will start on Feb. 12.

The FOI bill reached the plenary only last Monday but has remained stuck at the sponsorship stage.

The Senate passed its version of the FOI bill last year.

Quimbo urged the public to pressure their respective representatives to pass the bill.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) on Tuesday joined mounting calls for the passage of the FOI) bill.

In a pastoral statement, the bishops attributed the continuing corruption and abuse of power by public officials to the public’s lack of access to information or possibly, the deliberate hiding of pertinent information by those in the government.

“It is ironic that the government that prides itself of treading the daang matuwid fears the FOI bill because of possible discovery of wrongdoing by public officials. Why are they afraid to entrust the citizens with the truth of their governance?” stated the CBCP.

The Church hierarchy noted that without the FOI bill, many public officials guilty of corruption both in the present and past administration would remain free and not prosecuted for their wrongdoings.

CBCP President Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma, Antipolo Bishop Gabriel Reyes and Manila Auxiliary Bishops Broderick Pabillo, and Bernardino Cortez took turns reading from the statement.

P-Noy: Forgive activist

By Aurea Calica (The Philippine Star)

MANILA, Philippines - President Aquino sought forgiveness yesterday for reproductive health (RH) activist Carlos Celdran but stressed that he disagreed with the manner in which the popular tour guide aired his opinion.

It was not clear if the President was referring to legal forgiveness. Catholic bishops said yesterday they had long forgiven Celdran but would not oppose his conviction, which could put him behind bars for more than a year.

Celdran decried his conviction for a religious offense as a violation of free speech and vowed to appeal the decision.

“I may sympathize with Mr. Celdran’s position. Perhaps the methodology during a Mass, we don’t agree with it. Maybe if our priests, our religious will follow the example of the Pope and many other popes, Christian generosity and charity will prevail and perhaps they can forgive Mr. Celdran,” the President told reporters yesterday at the National Economic and Development Authority office in Ortigas Center after attending its 40th anniversary celebration.

“We can move forward from that time,” Aquino said, referring to the RH debates.

When asked if the government would take any action as Celdran’s conviction for “offending religious feelings” might have implications on the freedom of speech, Aquino said he still has to read the decision.

“Let me see the details first... Let’s see if there are implications,” he said.

He assured the public of their right to freedom of speech but noted that there are limitations on what to say and where it should be expressed.

‘Forgiven’

“The court has spoken and we respect the court... we have forgiven him so whatever the court decides we will respect it,” Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) president Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma said during a forum in Intramuros yesterday.

Palma said the CBCP has been busy with its 106th plenary assembly that he has yet to read the court’s decision on the case filed by Manila Cathedral rector Monsignor Nestor Cerbo, a member of the CBCP, against Celdran.

He said the case against Celdran was a lesson on respect.

“We respect the processes of the court and more than anything else love should prevail and we have already learned our lesson in the process. Respect should be given to every religion, respect the place and above all we should pray,” he said.

Celdran was found guilty of violating Article 133 Section 4 of the Revised Penal Code (RPC) after he walked into an ecumenical service at the cathedral on Sept. 30, 2010 and raised a placard with the word

“Damaso” when he reached the altar.

Padre Damaso was a character in the novels “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo” by Jose Rizal. He was an abusive Spanish friar and the novels implied that he was the father of Maria Clara, the love interest of the main character, Crisostomo Ibarra.

Celdran, also a performance artist, walked around the church with the placard then started shouting when the people ignored him.

One of those who witnessed Celdran’s protest said they thought that it was part of the ecumenical prayer service for the second anniversary of the “May They Be One” Bible campaign.

Manila City Metropolitan Trial Court Branch 4 Judge Juan Bermejo sentenced Celdran to a prison term ranging from two months and 21 days up to 13 months and 11 days.

I had to do it – Celdran

Meanwhile, Celdran justified his action, saying Catholic Church leaders were then threatening the President over the RH bill. Celdran told The STAR that he “feels bad” that a person could be convicted based on his religious belief and vowed to appeal his conviction.

He expressed concern that poor people in the same situation will not be able to defend themselves.

“This is an attack on freedom of speech. The law should be protecting our rights,” he said.

Celdran also denied that a Mass was ongoing when he entered the cathedral.

“It was a mere conference, a bible reading. It was not a religious ceremony... It was way before the Mass when I entered,” he said.

Legal assistance

Meanwhile, Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, one of the principal authors of the RH law, said he would extend legal assistance to Celdran, whom he described as a “victim of religious bias.”

Lagman said Article 133 of the RPC is “an anachronistic provision that should not be strictly enforced.”

“The freedom of expression should have ascendancy over this provision,” he said.

Lagman, along with Western Samar Rep. Mel Senen Sarmiento, said they would push for the amendment or repeal of the RPC provision.

Marikina City Rep. Miro Quimbo raised fears that the court decision would only “prolong the process of healing that we have all been working on” and urged Church leaders to forgive Celdran.

Anti-RH lawmakers led by Reps. Mitos Magsaysay (Zambales), Amado Bagatsing (Manila) and Roilo Golez (Parañaque City) said religious freedom is guaranteed in the Constitution.

“Freedom of expression comes with certain parameters and propriety. There is always a right forum to express our views, just work within it,” Magsaysay said.

Bagatsing said Celdran committed a punishable offense and should suffer the “consequence of his grandstanding.”

“What if this happened in a Muslim mosque?” he asked.

Golez said other religious organizations are expected to sue Celdran if similar acts of disrespect occurred in their service. – With Evelyn Macairan, Paolo Romero, Sandy Araneta

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