Unbridled executive powers, anti-fake news provision in emergency powers is Duterte's ticket for Marcosian repression

President Rodrigo Duterte has now signed into law a measure granting himself emergency powers to supposedly address the public health crisis brought about by the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19), which allows unbridled and general rule-making authority of the president and without parameters or restrictions including the power to arbitrarily define and penalize "fake news" with up to two months in jail and 1 million pesos of fines.

We are seriously alarmed that such vague provision regarding “fake news” did not even go through the House special session for deliberation. We assert that this amendment is dangerously unconstitutional, as it allows for powers that abridge the freedom of speech and expression. The lack of laws criminalizing "fake news" makes this provision void.

Moreover, this provision offers no definition of fake news, and only the president has the power to define it. This is a president with the propensity to lie, a government that actively engages in and is dependent on disinformation and deception. This power will not be used to penalize the Duterte regime's own army of paid trolls and propagandists. This sets a pretext for a Marcosian crackdown on free speech, as we anticipate that this power will be used to silence critics of the administration's militarist response to the COVID-19.

This emergency power seems to be already in effect in Cebu, where Governor Gwendolyn Garcia has threatened to go after critics, including a rapper, of the local government's quarantine measures on social media.

The president's emergency powers imperil the public's ability to hold government officials accountable. Granting the president power to define and penalize fake news imperils frontline health workers or local government officials who report on particular situations and thereby expose anomalous government policies and practices. It will impact journalists reporting on facts that they gather and on human rights workers who are documenting reports of human rights violations resulting from the imposition of quarantine measures. It will be Duterte's tool for Marcosian repression, creating a chilling effect to defer the public from posting online cases of abuses from authorities out of fear of reprisal or being tagged and criminalized as fake news peddlers.

This provision penalizing fake news, along with granting the president emergency powers, is unnecessary. We have registered our opposition to efforts seeking to pass anti-fake news measures for the same reasons in the past and we assert the same position now, in the face of Duterte's rapid consolidation of power through his militarist "National Action Plan" (NAP) using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to railroad more draconian measures. With former military officials criticized for driving and implementing repressive government policies at the helm of implementing the NAP against the COVID-19 outbreak, we can only expect further rights violations.

If the government wants to counter the so-called proliferation of "fake news" on the COVID-19 pandemic, it should be more transparent before the public and must answer truthfully and prudently to the public's inquiries. It should hold itself accountable when its own officials make false and wildly outrageous public statements. It should give the public a detailed, comprehensive, rights-based, mass-oriented, and scientific plan to combat the COVID-19 pandemic as a public health crisis along with its socio-economic impact on the people, especially the marginalized.