TWO news stories, which broke out on the same day (Thursday, March 15), highlight two major issues about fake news.
■ Sen. Panfilo Lacson said in an “Inquirer” story he was a victim of “fake news” when in 2001 senior military officers under then president Gloria Arroyo accused him of stashing in foreign bank accounts “hundreds of millions of dollars” he allegedly piled up from criminal activities when he was PNP chief.
■ Presidential spokesman Harry Roque and Sen. Grace Poe tangled at the Senate hearing over her bill, SB #1680, that seeks to punish administratively government officials and employees, especially information communicators, who share false news or information.
The first raises the question what the phrase means when Lacson said the news stories about him were “fake news.” The second raises the objection of Roque to the Poe bill: it is vague as, he said, “we don’t know what’s true and what’s false.” (He also cited violation of free speech and equal protection.)
Both issues push the need to avoid the confusion: In Lacson’s case, how the term is understood by people, including a senator of the land. In the Poe-Roque clash, what constitutes “fake news” that she wants included among the administratively punishable acts of public officials and employees.
Not helping any is that “fake news” is not defined in Poe’s bill. SB #1680 defines only “information.” Sen. Joel Villanueva’s bill, SB #1492, is wider in scope than Poe’s, as it’s not confined to government bureaucrats. But it also does not define the phrase. Both bills merely cite the damage that fake news will cause or tend to cause.
Villanueva would leave it to the court: the judge will determine truth or falsehood of the information. Poe, picking up Roque’s cue, would like the people to decide.
Roque said the vagueness makes Poe’s bill presumptively unconstitutional. (It’s doubtful if his other objections can stand. Equal protection right? Civil servants are a class by themselves; their code of conduct attests to the higher standards that Poe said they are bound to uphold. As to the threat on free speech and free press: they are free to speak and write but not to peddle untruth.)
The president’s spokesman asked rhetorically with some theater, “Who will sit in judgment over what truth is?” His answer: “...It is the public that should decide what is true or what is false.”
How would that be done: by polling public opinion, gauging reaction from social media? Ultimately the court would do it but it would help if the phrase “fake news” were defined. A clear definition in the law may remove the ambiguity Roque complains about.
That takes us to Senator Lacson’s “fake news” label on the stories reporting the accusation against him, thrown by Corpus and computer hacker Ador Mawanay who reportedly retracted later.
Media didn’t fabricate the story. Corpus and Mawanay aired the charges before the Senate 17 years ago. They gave details and were grilled by senators.
That wasn’t fake news. The reporters had solid basis for the story, produced at a public proceeding conducted in Congress. And the news didn’t say Lacson stole money; the news said military officers accused Lacson of corruption. The allegation turned out to be false but media retelling to the public was not.
To blame and now penalize the press for a news story based on what accusers said before the Senate is in effect to stop or scare reporting on a matter of public interest.
The other meaning
Lacson apparently used the secondary meaning of fake news, promoted mostly by politicians who use the term for news they disagree with or don’t like.
The phrase is being distorted and corrupted, thus causing confusion among the public. Lawmakers need to define clearly what it is, if ever they push through with the move to penalize publishers of fake news. The legal definition cannot be the bastardized perception of the term.
And surely that legal definition must not be so broad as to include mistakes that journalists and media outlets make in good faith in publishing news and information.
Those errors, which media managers work hard to avoid and correct diligently, must not be confused with news concocted or distorted for personal or partisan interest. One is the core of good journalism. The other is evil propaganda.
May the lawgivers not fail to see the distinction.
[Seares is also executive director of Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC) which last March 6, 2018 released its definition of “fake news.”]