August 19, 2019
IN the English language, the word ”babel” is both a proper noun and an English word in its own right.
As a noun, it denotes a place in ancient times where the people tried to build a tower so high that it would reach heaven. The project was so grandiose, Jehovah rejected the Tower of Babel and punished the people with so many languages, they could not understand each other.
As an English word, ”babel” means “a state of confusion caused by many people talking at the same time or using different languages.”
We are impelled to apply the word to the current situation in the Senate, where many senators are vying with each other to author legislation that will stop fake news in the Internet and in the media.
Senate President Vicente Sotto 3rd no less is leading the charge against fake news. He has authored Senate Bill (SB) 9, also known as “An Act Prohibiting the Publication and Proliferation of False Content on the Philippine Internet, Providing Measures to Counteract its Effects and Prescribing Penalties therefor.”
The bill will impose a P1-million fine and/or imprisonment on any person found financing an online activity that publishes false information.
Sen. Mary Grace Poe, who served at one time as chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Information, has filed a bill that will punish government employees who share “fake news,”
Calendared as SB 1680, Poe’s bill seeks to amend Republic Act 6713, or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, to penalize those in government who publish or disseminate false news or information in any platform. Her special target are public employees and public officials.
Not to be outdone, Sen. Emmanuel Joel Villanueva has proposed SB 1492, which defines false news or information as “those which either intend to cause panic, division, chaos, violence, and hate, or those which exhibit a propaganda to blacken or discredit one’s reputation.”
Under the bill, any person proven guilty of creating or distributing fake news will face a fine ranging from P100,000 to P5 million and 1 to 5 years of imprisonment.
These are highly ambitious measures, each with its own grand plan to control fake news.
Our first question is: Why are there so many fake news bills in the Senate? Why can‘t the senators agree among themselves to put forward one piece of fake news legislation.
Second, we wonder how the senators will square their respective proposals with the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and expression.
Many countries have tired in their respective ways to pass laws to control fake news. Most, like our neighbor Malaysia, have had to withdraw the legislation, after negative international opinion came crashing down on them.
Now, it is Singapore‘s turn in the limelight. It passed this year a new law titled ”Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act”(Pofma).
The law has triggered a storm of criticism against the government of Lee Hsien Loong, which many describe as an authoritarian state.
If our people allow our senators to do their worst, without considering the consequences, what will happen to our country and to the constitutional guarantee of free speech?
The proper thing to do is for the Senate to hold a sensible hearing first on the subject of controlling fake news in the internet. With more study and debate, perhaps a better proposal will be crafted.
The option of dropping the idea altogether is also worth considering. It looks vainglorious, like the ill- fated Tower of Babel in the biblical story.
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