Who would have thought that the fake news controversy, which is essentially about falsehood, would give birth to so many lunatic ideas, absurd proposals and totalitarian posturing?
To mention some of them: one proposal is for Congress to create an information police; another is a ban on fake news; and that government communicators be stripped of their right to express their personal opinion.
Each is dopey in its own way.
We, in the Times, are constrained to raise our voice in alarm because otherwise responsible and thoughtful people have come out of their foxholes to offer outlandish and patently unconstitutional proposals to check the epidemic of fake news that has lately visited our public life.
It occurs to us that if we who are in the press or the media do not draw the line on the territorial imperative of free speech and press freedom, we could wake up one day to a heavily restricted and regulated freedom of free expression and press freedom. And our work would consequently become more difficult to do.
This is the unpleasant implication of the proposal of lawyer Florin Hilbay for the creation of an information police or ombudsman to censor and police public information.
Hilbay is not new to government affairs. He is a former solicitor general, the last official lawyer of former president Benigno Aquino 3rd, during the final stage of his presidency when he faced a number of major scandals.
At last week’s Senate hearing on fake news where he was one of the resource persons, Hilbay proposed as an antidote to fake news, especially those generated by the government, the creation of a state body called the “Institute for the Integrity of Information.”
Elaborating on his idea, he explained: “The way to counterbalance government disinformation is through the creation of a public institution whose sole task is to identify and publicize government dishonesty. When public officials become dishonest, it is the obligation of the State itself to correct distortions in the marketplace of ideas.
“I propose that Congress enact a statute creating the Institute for the Integrity of Information, a sort of Ombudsman for public information provided by government, or an information police for government officials.”
Information police? This is a harebrained idea. It will erect a fence around public information, and discourage government information officers from doing better at work. It will restrict public and media access to government information, which the freedom of information executive order is designed to liberate.
We might have listened had Hilbay proposed this scheme when he was still lawyering for Aquino and his government.
As one astute citizen, or perhaps, expatriate, has pointed out, the mechanism for checking the quality or truthfulness of government information already exists. It is called the press or the media, whose main function is to provide the citizenry and the public accurate and timely information about developments and official acts or regulations in our public life.
It is our duty in the media to fact-check and evaluate what government says or legislates. There are also civil society organizations that have made this task their specific advocacy. Social media has also been effective in quickly exposing mistakes or misrepresentations in government information.
Hilbay’s proposal in our view will be a terrible waste of public money. It will only create another government body that the public and the media must watch and worry about.
The very idea of an agency that will have the last say on information is repugnant to us. It is totalitarian or Orwellian.