Seares: If group chat is private and not news, talk on virus ‘corpses’ offensive but not illegal

Medias Public

CAPITOL, there’s a situation.

Cebu Gov. Gwen Garcia and Regional Health Director Dr. Jaime Bernadas were angry at social media users who circulated “false news” about victims of coronavirus.

A chat group spread the false news that seven corpses, alleged victims of Covid-19, were cremated at Cosmopolitan Funeral Homes in Cebu City but the information was being concealed from the public. It was false as three of those from whom the information originated admitted that it was “just a prank.”

Governor Garcia at a Capitol press-con Wednesday, March 19, said the Facebook post caused panic among her constituents. She threatened to sue the culprits who, she alleged, endangered public safety. DOH regional chief Bernadas said these people peddling false news pretend to be news reporters or doctors or even the governor or mayor.

Lawsuit as an option

What are the options for those directing the battle against the coronavirus, as Guv Gwen and Dr. Bernadas are?

The governor dangled the threat of a lawsuit over the chat group led by one Kevinn Ebo, 26. But their defense may make pinpointing responsibility difficult. Ebo and two of his colleagues, who presented themselves to Cebu City Mayor Edgar Labella also last Wednesday, admitted it was “all a prank” but alleged they didn’t post their exchange. Somebody screen-shot it and posted it on someone’s Facebook account.

Not a matter of libel

If it were a case for libel, in relation to the Anti-Cyber Crime Law, circulating maliciously a defamatory material even to just one other person would be enough. But apparently this is not a matter of libel. This is a case of violation of public order. And the means of publication goes further into internet dynamics, which allows, for now, wider latitude of expression than in legacy media.

The closest law prosecutors can get to it is Art. 154 of the Revised Penal Code, which punishes “unlawful use of means of publication” under the section “Public disorders.” The punishable act is publishing “as news any false news that may endanger the public order or cause damage to the interest or credit of the state.”

Would a Facebook post of a conversation by a chat group qualify as publication of news within the meaning of the law? There was publication all right, but it was not “published as news,” which Art. 154 of the penal code specifically requires. And the chat group may set up the added defense that (a) it was intended as a private talk and (b) its disclosure to the public was not made by the chat group or any of its members.

Whom to sue, which law

As a prank, which Kevinn Ebo admitted to City Attorney Rey Gealon and the mayor, it was condemnable at any time, more grievous in a period of emergency.

The problem is whom to sue and what law the offender must be slapped with, this penal code provision whose penalty is six years and one day to 12 years and a fine of P40,000 to P200,000?

Bills on fake news are still pending in Congress and there is still no law to cover the acts of pranksters and malice-driven peddlers of fake news, which don’t constitute libel.

The tough part in crafting the law is how to do it without constituting as prior restraint on media and infringing on free speech and free press. With the influx of people in the internet pretending to be reporters (“magpa-reporter,” in Dr. Bernadas’s words) and the blurred lines between journalism and social media prattle or rant, it is harder to set the governing rules.

Two kinds of appeal

During this emergency, Governor Gwen asked the public—those actively engaged in the social media and those who just vicariously read it—must not be gullible and must not believe immediately what they read, except information coming from (1) the Department of Health, (2) the office of the governor and (3) the “legitimate media.” Dr. Bernadas’s plea was for the public not to read Facebook at all when it comes to information about Covid-19.

A radio commentator noted that DOH and the governor’s office may not be always believed because they have the interest of the government to uphold and, for the political leader, an image to protect.

Neither can the regular media, “the legitimate media” the governor endorses, be entirely trustworthy all the time. It is fallible and prone to commit errors at any news cycle. But there’s a huge difference in preferring regular media, along with DOH and the governor’s office or any other government office, as source of information. And that is, they openly account for any falsehood in the published material and, as a matter of procedure, they own up and promptly correct their mistakes.

Accountable for error

Unlike most stuff in social media, published news or opinion from clearly identified media outlets is fully supported by the respective publishers. Regular media, particularly, has a layer of editors and other gatekeepers in each outlet who check the news for accuracy and other standards and holds itself accountable for any error. DOH and the governor’s office can be called out for any mistake in fact-telling.

A total shunning of Facebook, which Dr. Bernadas urged, is all-embracing since social media, in its news feeds and direct posts, also carries material from regular media. The governor’s appeal to media consumers to be picky in trusting news or opinion is more prudent‑-although it is much tougher to follow.


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