FOR all the words and press releases that Sen. Grace Poe and presidential spokesman Harry Roque, Jr. have hurled at each other, the two are not advancing the public interest one whit. They’re barking about things that do not address the true purpose of public information, which is to serve the public’s right to know.
Senator Poe has evidently not forgotten her stint as the chief government censor during the time of President Benigno Aquino 3rd. She has filed a bill that seeks to amend RA 6713, otherwise known as the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, which will hold public officials to higher standards in the dissemination of information, so that under compulsion they will not purvey false news or misinformation.
The senator explained her bill this way: “It is the goal of this legislative measure to hold public officials to higher standards with the advent and continuous rise of social media… The title itself… is a law about government officials. It applies only to public officials and employees.”
The bill has aroused concern from Mr. Roque, whose chief job is to disseminate information from the Office of the President. If the bill is passed, Roque will be under the microscope everyday for his multiple daily statements.
Roque criticized Poe’s proposed measure (Senate bill 1680) on the grounds that it singles out public officials whose primary task is disseminating information.
The proposed measure covers all public officials and employees of government agencies, instrumentalities,
offices and departments, especially those tasked to disseminate information or news, and they would be barred from publishing, disseminating or causing to publish or disseminate false news or information.
If read correctly, the bill violates the rule against prior restraint on the freedom of expression of citizens. It is a big no-no in the canons of press freedom.
The Constitution explicitly says in Article III, Section 4: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press…”
Public officials and employees are citizens too.
During the second hearing on fake news of the Senate committee on public information and mass media, which Poe chaired, many senators and the public were startled to be told that two of the chief purveyors of fake news in the country are President Rodrigo Duterte and Vice President Leni Robredo.
Is that the reason why Senator Poe filed her bill? She believes the president and vice president should be censored in advance whenever they want to disseminate information?
How do we resolve this conundrum?
We have to return the discussion to the fundamental object of public information, which is to serve the public’s right to know what happens in their government.
It would be far better for Senator Poe and Mr. Roque to join together in championing the passage of a true Freedom of Information Act by Congress. President Duterte cannot do the job through an executive order. Freedom of information needs an organic act from the legislature.