Anti-fake news bill gives Duterte more power to suppress media, violate free expression — Karapatan

Karapatan opposed a measure which seeks to criminalize the publication and proliferation of false content or “fake news” on the internet, deeming the bill “dangerous” and “hypocritical.” The human rights group warned that allowing the government to define “fake news” would only give the Duterte administration more power to clamp down on media and critical content online.

“An anti-fake news bill will be a bogus bill against disinformation, especially when the main purveyors of false information fare in power. This bill only sets a dangerous pretext in the country’s current political situation, particularly its worsening press freedom and human rights crisis. It will suppress online content that is critical to government, while allowing the spurious and the fictitious information and narratives driven by powers-that-be. This government is already engaged in deliberate, widespread and organized deception in online platforms and on the ground, and a so-called disinformation bill will worsen this,” Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay said. 

She cited reports on the accounts organized by Duterte’s social media manager back in his 2016 presidential campaign, Nic Gabunada, that were taken down by Facebook last March 2019 for using fake accounts and spreading false information as among the examples of the government’s weaponization of online spaces.

“The bill, with its vague provisions and definitions, is severely prone to abuse. It is hypocritical: it basically gives the fascist and deceptive Duterte regime arbitrary power to define ‘fake news’ and to use the law to declare any content critical or contrary to government interests as ‘fake’, thus widening doors for more cases of media repression and wholesale violation of free expression of individuals. This bill will have a chilling effect on the government’s critics and will result to massive censorship. It will also give the real peddlers of disinformation the upper hand in dominating online platforms with false news and government propaganda.”

Senate Bill No. 9, or the Anti-False Content Act, was filed by Senator Vicente “Tito” Sotto III at the first regular session of the 18th Congress last July 1 as one of his priority bills, supposedly “to protect the public from the deleterious effects of false and deceiving content online;” a similar measure filed by Senator Joel Villanueva in the 17th Congress, dubbed the Anti-Fake News Act of 2017.

Sotto’s bill imposes stiff penalties such as fines ranging from 200,000 to 2,000,000 pesos as well as prison sentences of six (6) years to twenty (20) years. Palabay nonetheless said that laws and penalties cannot effectively combat disinformation and the proliferation of false content online when the government is its “number one source.”

“Current criminal laws are already excessive and repressive enough in regulating online speech and the media such as libel, cyber-libel, and slander being filed against journalists and reporters for critical reportage—with the current regime even leading the vicious attacks on press freedom. It is therefore hypocritical for the Duterte administration to penalize the creation and proliferation of ‘fake news’ when it is the number one source of malicious disinformation, lies, and malicious propaganda: it supports, funds, and appoints to government posts personalities known to be engaged in spreading fraudulent information online that favors the fascist regime while whitewashing its violence and brutality,” the Karapatan official stated, referring to former Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) official Mocha Uson, among others. 

The human rights alliance also warned that such measure is also laying the foundations for Duterte’s all-out dictatorship through the railroading of charter change (“cha-cha”), which aims to consolidate Duterte’s political power.

“Giving Duterte the power to define and penalize ‘fake news’—therefore the power to tag critics, activists, and political opponents as proliferators of information that Duterte deems ‘fake’—is an essential ingredient in the regime’s recipe for a fascist dictatorship, especially with Duterte’s impending charter change, which seeks to solidify and consolidate his political power and control. The Filipino people, however, will not be deceived: the only truth here is that the worsening socio-economic crisis in the country brought by the regime’s sham and brutal policies are only forcing more and more people to resist Duterte’s tyranny, which explains Duterte’s desperation to cling to power,” Palabay continued.

The rights group called on human rights advocates, journalists, media organizations, media advocacy groups, and the Filipino public to reject the bill as it “threatens to impose an even more dangerous form of censorship of press freedom and free expression, counterproductive enough to severely impair the media and the public’s capacity to discern through and detect the regime’s widespread deception.”

“Fact-checking and verification of claims are already established practices in the media, especially in alternative media organizations and even in people’s organizations and human rights groups. We will continue to exhaust all efforts to expose the regime’s lies and brutality; after all, the truth here is that Duterte and his cohorts are the liars and the purveyors of fake news,” Palabay ended.