It is not about accountability

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ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

THERE was much brouhaha about Mocha Uson having violated the ethical and professional standards of a government official when she continues to engage in micro-blogging in social media in such a partisan way that includes attacking the critics of the President. I can grant that this is a fair issue considering that government officials are supposed to be non-partisan, and are governed by a code of ethics.

But one should not let the other side get away with an easy pass. I am referring to professional journalists who are also governed by their own code of ethics on how they should report the news and serve as anchors in news programs, yet maintain social media accounts where they also micro-blog, express their partisan views and attack public figures and personalities.

If Mocha deserves to be censored, or silenced in social media for the reason that it is unethical conduct for her to engage critics of government, sometimes using non-diplomatic words, then these reporters and anchors deserve to be gagged too. After all, they are supposed to be fair and neutral when reporting about the President and about politics and political personalities.

There is a problem of credibility when reporters who just posted a criticism of the President in social media will deliver reports about him in the six o-clock news, or write news items about him in the print or online platforms of their newspapers. And sometimes, their political biases even show in their editorializing of their news reports.


The same applies to journalists who host early morning public opinion programs on TV or radio in the morning, and then anchor the primetime news shows later. In fact, some of them carry their morning rants into their anchoring. You see this in the smirks in their faces, or even in the intonation of their voices or their side-comments.

Professional journalists have been at the forefront in questioning the legitimacy of social media, and its role in political discourse. They label social media enablers and bloggers as illegitimate transgressors into the hallowed halls of the discipline and the practice of journalism.

What they forget is that social media is simply a technology-mediated articulation of public opinion in the Internet age. Bloggers are the new faces of the community opinion leaders which in pre-Internet times simply expressed their political commentaries in real physical spaces such as sari-sari stores, drinking sessions and plazas.

There is so much talk about lack of accountability on the part of the social media bloggers. There is an impression that they can freely libel anyone, and spread false information that can compromise state security, and get away with it. Worse, they could easily spread rumor and malign people from the security of anonymous accounts. Hence, there is a push to legislate against social media blogging in the guise of preventing fakery and anonymous slander.

But if one just examines closely the legal context that is in place in our country, there are already enough applicable laws. These include the Revised Penal Code, particularly in its libel provisions, and the anti-cybercrime law. In fact, the punishment for cyber libel is one notch higher than ordinary libel.

Community standards also abound to regulate those who abuse their free speech privileges in the Internet. Accounts can be suspended, or even taken down, including anonymous accounts. And for the latter, #CocoyGate has taught us that simple diligence and the use of information technology can crack the secrecy of these accounts.

Mainstream media, as represented by Ellen Tordesillas, has been harping on government agents being the one propagating fakery in social media. Florin Hilbay, during the #CocoyGate Senate hearings, proposed that an information police be set up to serve as watchdog over government misinformation.

I don’t know where Tordesillas and Hilbay are coming from. They should be told that media is already there to fact-check government through investigative reports. In fact, that is what Tordesillas’ Vera Files has been doing. There is no law that bars media from exposing falsehoods mouthed by government agencies, and if the falsity turns out to have serious implications, there is also no law that bars concerned citizens from filing cases against public officials in the appropriate forum, which could include impeachment, if the offending party is the President.

The intent is obviously to propagate the myth that social media bloggers are beyond the reach of the law, and that they act as if they cannot be held accountable for their actions.

This is a big fat lie.

I am no longer surprised that Leni Robredo has this mindset. But what is laughable is when someone from the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, an organization of professional journalists, even said the same thing.

In this country, everyone is covered by libel laws, even the President after his term and the members of Congress if they repeat the libel outside their applicable immunities.

In fact, it has to be pointed out that mainstream media persons who work in networks and newspapers have a legal team retained by their organizations available to defend them when they are accused of libel. This, while social media bloggers are left on their own, unless they are working for some political group as propagandists. But even in such cases, they also face the risk of being abandoned by their patrons when they become liabilities.

Hence, this cry to regulate social media blogging is nothing but a patent attack on freedom of speech, as a form of prior restraint. Those who cry to high heavens about human rights violations, but at the same time push for restricting the right to free speech, should be ashamed.

In the final analysis, it is not about accountability, for there are already legal remedies.

It is simply because mainstream media now fear social media bloggers as powerful competitors, and that politicians consider them as uncontrollable checks to their power.

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