I MONITORED the live television proceedings of the hearing on Wednesday of the Senate committee on public information and mass media chaired by Sen. Grace Poe. The subject was fake news and social media bloggers and mainstream media representatives served as resource persons. It was sort of hilarious, annoying, and revealing at the same time.
Bloggers’ point of view
Most of the so-called social media bloggers belong to the younger generation. Their demeanor and manner of speaking were so much different from that of seasoned journalists.
Rey Joseph Nieto, the Thinking Pinoy blogger, seems to be a straight talker and would bow to no one. His postings are fearless and, as he described himself during a brief tussle with Sen. Antonio Trillanes 4th, carefree. There was even a point where he almost taunted Trillanes to file a libel case against him, if the former finds something wrong with his postings. But this was interrupted and he was not able to deliver his full message.
These media bloggers invoked their constitutionally protected rights—the right to free speech and freedom of expression— several times. They must be referring to Section 4, Article III of the Constitution, which states,
“No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”
Can these social media bloggers say anything without incurring any legal liability?
The mainstream media
Also present at the hearing were the big broadcast networks—ABS-CBN, GMA, and TV5. Other noted personalities in journalism were there like Vera Files president Ellen Tordesillas.
The representative of ABS-CBN claimed that the term “fake news” is a misnomer. She said that news is “news” and that “fake news” should instead be labeled as “misinformation”.
Roby Alampay, the editor in chief of Interaksyon, was a revelation. It was refreshing to hear someone from the mainstream media who talks with sense and intelligence.
Alampay said that we have enough laws in the Philippines to protect us from irresponsible journalism and false news reporting. According to him, we do not need another law for fake news. He emphasized that what the press world needs is to “find a way to institutionalize information literacy.”
I totally agree with Alampay. If you feel aggrieved by a news article, or even a social media posting, then you can file a case of libel against the author of the article – whether the article is in print, in air broadcast, or social media posting. These supposed purveyors of false news can be prosecuted for violations of the Revised Penal Code and the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, among others.
Seeming friction within PCOO
The Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) was there in full force, but with the notable absence of its chief, Secretary Martin Andanar. Among those present were PCOO undersecretary Joel Sy Egco, assistant secretaries Mocha Uson and Ana Maria Paz Banaag, among others.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros averred that Andanar had declared that bloggers should adhere and follow the journalist’s Code of Ethics.
Banaag said that was Andanar’s mere opinion and that it was not the policy of the PCOO, especially their social media group. She added that there was no written memorandum or order from Andanar requiring them to comply with the journalist’s Code of Ethics.
When asked about the specific functions of Uson, Egco replied that he is not the employer of Uson and he did not define the job functions of the latter. Someone mentioned that they were directly appointed by the President.
I could sense signs of friction from these statements. If PCOO personnel cannot work as a team, how can it fulfill its mandate to “serve as the premier arm of the Executive Branch in engaging and involving the citizenry and the mass media”?
Public vs personal
It was disclosed in the course of the hearing that Nieto was hired as the head of strategic communications of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). This directly places him in the payroll of Filipino taxpayers. Similarly, Uson maintains her personal blog despite being appointed as Assistant Secretary for Social Media at PCOO.
The major question now is whether or not they can continue blogging in their personal capacities. Sen. Nancy Binay dared Uson to choose between being a private blogger or being an assistant secretary. Binay cited the governing law, RA 6713.
Binay is right. Section 4 of the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees requires public servants to “always uphold the public interest over and above personal interest” and that they “shall endeavor to discourage wrong perceptions of their roles as dispensers or peddlers of undue patronage.”
Obviously, personal blogging is tantamount to being a dispenser or peddler of undue patronage, regardless of political affiliation. Alampay is correct in saying that maintaining a personal blog, while being a government official or employee, “is untenable”. He affirmed that it would be hard for the public to distinguish which is a personal opinion and which is a government policy.
Role of social media influencers
Nieto openly admitted that social media bloggers are employed by both the private and public sector as “social media influencers”.
One influencer marketing firm defined a “social media influencer” as a user on social media who has established credibility in a specific industry. A social media influencer has access to a large audience and can persuade others by virtue of their authenticity and reach. An influencer can reach a target audience or population via their blogs and social networks that their paying principals may not be able to.
Influencers should always have a niche, an area where they are experts. Their presence may cover more than one social media channel. Most importantly, the contents of the channel should always provide a value in it. There is no place for fake news here.
Does the government need influencers on its payroll? My answer is an emphatic “no”. The best influencer for a competent government are not its popular bloggers, but its own set of accomplishments and achievements.
Going back to my first question—Can these social media bloggers say just anything, without incurring any legal liability?
The young generation have a mistaken concept of freedom of expression and speech. Yes, freedom of expression and the right to free speech are among the most zealously guarded in our Constitution. But, these are not absolute.
In the exercise of these rights, it required that everyone act with justice, give everyone his due, and observe honesty and good faith.