July 17, 2019
A bill that would impose severe criminal penalties on those who create and spread “fake news” has been proposed by Senate President Vicente Sotto 3rd. The bill is an understandable expression of public frustration over fake news, but in its present form does not contain adequate safeguards against abuse, and must be improved before being considered for passage.
Sotto’s Senate Bill (SB) 9 would prohibit the publication and spread of false content on social media, imposing penalties on violators that include imprisonment and fines ranging from P200,000 to P2 million.
In his introductory remarks to the bill, Sotto cited a Social Weather Stations survey done in late 2017 that showed that 67 percent of Filipino internet users said they believed fake news was “a serious problem” in the internet.
SB 9 provides penalties for those who knowingly create or publish false or misleading information on the internet; use a fake online account or website to publish false or misleading information; knowingly provide technical assistance or financing for fake news; or defy a government order to correct, remove, or block viewer access to false or misleading information.
Once the bill is passed into law, the Department of Justice-Office of Cybercrime would have the power to issue rectification or takedown order.
The Cybercrime Division of the Philippine National Police and the National Bureau of Investigation, meanwhile, will enforce the provisions of the law.
The bill in its current form raises two concerns that must be addressed.
First, there is little assurance in the proposed law that it could not be used improperly to stifle legitimate criticism, or to damage someone’s reputation by making false accusations of “fake news.”
Second, there is a question of balance between freedom of expression and restricting information in the name of protecting an unsuspecting public from fake news.
As a media organization, we agree that “fake news” is a serious problem. False and misleading information can damage reputations of people and organizations, and harms the credibility of all media practitioners, whether they are part of the mainstream or social media. On the other hand, we strongly believe that freedom of the media and freedom of expression are fundamental freedoms, and should never be restricted unless the expression is proven without doubt to be false and malicious.
We would make two recommendations to improve the provisions of the proposed anti-fake news law. First, it should be harmonized with relevant existing laws, in particular the Cybercrime Law (Republic Act 10175), and the Anti-Libel Law (RA 4363). What is proposed by SB 9 may be at least partly covered already in those existing laws.
The second recommendation is that clear provisions to ensure that anything tagged as “fake news” is proven without a shadow of doubt to be false, and intentionally spread. That should be decided by the courts. If it is left to the Department of Justice, then its decisions and the evidence supporting them must be completely transparent, with the records made available to the public.
Taking a firm stand against fake news and adopting measures to eradicate it are worthwhile goals. But these goals cannot be pursued in a way that very well may cause more harm than it solves.
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