IF harsh penalty can stop the commission of a crime, we should be living in a peaceful world. But we are not, despite the existence of so many laws prescribing stiff penalties against certain crimes.
What penalty could be worse than imprisonment for life in cramped and stinky jails, with a provision for P50 worth of badly cooked food a day? Yet, every day we still read or hear about incidents involving murder, rape, and drug-related crimes with the maximum penalty.
On this premise, I would say that the proposal of Sen. Joel Villanueva, regardless of its good intentions, to prescribe penalties of up to P5 million in fines and jail term of up to five years would be an effective tool to stop the proliferation of fake news.
The proposed penalty would apply to any person who “maliciously” offers, publishes, and spreads false news or information in print, broadcast or online media.
A higher fine of P10 million to P20 million and longer imprisonment of 10 years to 20 years await mass media entities or social media platforms that fail, neglect, or refuse to remove false news.
“The effect of fake news should not be taken lightly. Fake news creates impression and beliefs based on false premises leading to division, misunderstanding and further exacerbating otherwise strenuous relations,” the senator said.
Under Senate Bill 1492, or “An Act Penalizing the Malicious Distribution of False News and Other Related Violations,” which Villanueva filed last Wednesday, false news or information is defined as those which either intend to cause panic, division, chaos, violence, and hate, or those which exhibit a propaganda to blacken or discredit one’s reputation.
If the offender is a public official, he or she would be made to pay twice the amount of fine, and serve twice the period of imprisonment, plus the accessory penalty of absolute perpetual disqualification from holding any public office.
Problem No. 1: How can creators and peddlers of fake news who hide behind fake identities be prosecuted? If government has failed to nail down plunderers and murderers despite thick folders of evidence, how can the long arm of the law reach phantom warriors and online trolls?
This early, some activist legislators have already raised objections to Villanueva’s proposition. Representatives Teodoro Baguilat of Ifugao, Carlos Zarate of Bayan Muna party-list, and Antonio Tinio of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) party-list collectively invoked the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and of the press that may be impaired if an anti-fake news bill is legislated.
“While the proliferation of fake news and online misinformation has to be addressed decisively, we submit that criminalizing it is not the way forward. The bill’s very broad scope may infringe on the people’s constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression,” said Zarate, a human rights lawyer.
Baguilat, a journalism graduate of the University of the Philippines who had served the government in various capacities before becoming a legislator in 2010, said Villanueva’s bill was patterned after a a law in Germany that was legislated to fight hate messages.
“That bill is patterned after the German law but the German law was legislated to fight hate messages and has strong constitutional grounds because of its anti-Nazi, anti-hate provisions,” he said.
Baguilat was referring to Germany’s war history during which the Nazis led by Adolf Hitler ordered all Jews in Europe killed for supposedly being an inferior race.
“In our case, I would suggest we should instead work on ways on how to fight fake news without having the state use its powers to restrict freedom of expression,” he said.
Advocates of press freedom would expectedly argue that self-regulation and education are the best ways to fight fake news.
As Tinio correctly pointed out, we have a libel law that imposes penalties on persons peddling false information while those in government are covered by Republic Act 6713, or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees.
Instead of penalizing fake news peddlers, Zarate called for speedy passage of the long-pending Freedom of Information bill so the public will have available facts, rather than fake news, to consume.
“The best way to counter fake news is for the people to be well informed of facts,” he said.
The points raised by Baguilat, Tinio, and Zarate are well taken. However, these would work only in an ideal situation when discernment and common sense are easy to come by, but not when freedoms are manipulated and abused even by officials who are supposed to show good examples of responsibility.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), in calling on its flock to “rebut and refute falsehood,” succinctly described the situation we’re in.
“Sadly, we see this happening today. There are persons who have given themselves [over]to the service of reporting what never happened, concealing what really happened, and distorting what should be presented in a straightforward manner,” said the CBCP statement dated June 21, and signed by its president, Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas.
Perhaps Mocha Uson, the blogger-turned-assistant secretary for social media under the Presidential Communication Operations Office (PCOO), believes that the anti-fake news bill, if and when it becomes law, would be yet another piece of legislation that would selectively cover only critics of the administration. That is why she has thrown her support behind its passage.
She probably thinks she can always get away with her excuses for “alternative facts” and “symbolism” in spreading falsehoods and her version of the truth.
And we’re not even talking yet about Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre’s false claims against critics of the administration.
Aguirre earlier accused opposition senators of having a hand in the clashes in Marawi City, echoing unverified information spread online. He showed a photo to prove his claim but it turned out the picture was taken in 2015. Aguirre has refused to publicly apologize for his false claims.
Uson was caught spreading unverified information in her social media accounts several times, including a photograph of soldiers kneeling, as if in prayer, purportedly those who are fighting the Maute militants in Marawi City but turned out to be a 2015 photo of Honduran police officers.
Imprisonment may not be the answer to false news. A more effective weapon would be the awareness and consciousness to be responsible freedom-loving citizens. But in a democracy like ours, that seems like a long shot for many whose version of the truth depends on their political leanings.