Thursday, December 02, 2021

Seares: Senate’s fake news bill: ‘patay’ -- or maybe not

“... I am sure they cannot pass a law on fake news.”
-- President Duterte, Oct. 4, 2017

THIS needs to be said again. Philippine media has long accepted that free speech or free press is not absolute. Laws on libel, slander, inciting to sedition, national security and contempt, among others, limit that freedom and journalists do their work fully recognizing it.

Media generally resists any form of additional restraint, especially when it suspects reprisal or attempt to harass or gag the press. Media even wants existing tether removed: it hopes libel is decriminalized and oppressive rules lifted (such as the law that allows an aggrieved public official to sue a journalist thousands of kilometers away from the newspaper office or broadcast station).

Stiffer libel law?

No surprise that media watch organizations such as Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility (CMFR) and National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) have opposed Senate Bill #1492, which seeks to criminalize fake news. A number of lawmakers and some politicians have also criticized the bill, calling instead for stiffer penalties for libel and slander.

Notable among the critical public officials is President Duterte who said the bill wouldn’t pass as it would violate the Constitution. A good sign for SB #1492 opposers as Congress, controlled by Duterte allies, takes the cue from him.

Objections to proposal

Until the Senate modifies or rejects Senate Bill #1492 though, opinions on the bill must be heard and tested if they can stand scrutiny.

Take a look at some reasons for the opposition to the bill:

■ Being unconstitutional. If libel, slander and other curbs on free press and free speech have passed the Constitution’s standard, a bill against fake news is most likely to hurdle that bar. The cyber-crime law did.

Duterte’s objection, obviously not researched by his legal counsel, was something like this: You express an opinion, you make an assumption, and so a standard must be set. “’Patay,’” he said, “that’s censorship.” Fake news is news, not opinion. Opinion runs afoul with the fake news law only if fake news is used in arguing for one’s view or position.

■ Being a duplication. The president and CMFR are among those who say the existing libel laws already cover fake news. Not in many instances. If the fake news is not against a person or group of persons whose honor is defamed by the published material, it’s not libel. In Sen. Joel Villanueva’s definition, fake news shall cause “panic, division, violence and hate.” Libel involves wounding an individual’s or group’s feelings when their reputation or honor is smeared. Fake news doesn’t always involve that.

■ Legislating manners. One blogger opposes the Villanueva bill because one can’t legislate good manners, lack of which, he says, is the internet’s virtue. It’s not civility that’s being legislated. What’s criminalized is the offense against public order when the false information causes “confusion, panic, chaos,” etc.

Same thing with libel. It’s not merely the impropriety. When one calls another a thug or a thief, or incites the public to storm City Hall, or discloses military secrets, that goes beyond civility or manners.

Definition, malice Instead, the Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC) dwells on defects of SB #1492 that might make the resulting law an instrument for abuse and oppression and offensive to the Constitution.

In a resolution addressed to the Senate and the House, CCPC complains on the absence of a definition of fake news. The Villanueva bill doesn’t define what is fake news; it only tells what it causes. The term being used loosely nowadays, so that it applies to all sorts of media error, a complainant may seize on any journalistic lapse to hale editors and reporters to court. A penal law must be specific and clear about what it punishes. There must be some standard, to use the president’s word.

Another concern of CCPC is the need for safeguards for media about malice. Actual malice must be proved by the complainant especially when the alleged fake news refers to a public person or public figure.

Other measures

CCPC holds that unless the defects are corrected, Congress may as well spend more time to study the bill further. Meanwhile, CCPC suggests other measures to fight fake news, which may include media literacy among consumers and prompt call-out on fake news and its fabricators. And yes, government bloggers on government payroll can help: by shunning fake news themselves.

[Seares is also executive director of Cebu Citizens-Council (CCPC)]
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