The Parliament of Singapore passed a law against uploading and spreading false information last May. It requires online media platforms that any government ministry accuses of carrying “fake news” to correct or remove the offending material, and penalizes those responsible with 10-year prison terms and fines of up to S$1 million (about $740,000). The bad news is that the Philippine Congress could do the same thing.
Singapore’s “fake news” law has been widely criticized by journalists, human rights groups, and legal scholars for being a threat to free expression. But its passage was not really all that surprising. Singapore, whose rulers look at free expression and press freedom as solely Western values rather than as universal legacies of the human struggle for freedom, has never been a haven for either. Many journalists practice self-censorship out of fear of being accused of defamation or of violating its stringent national security laws. Singapore has imprisoned journalists for these offenses.
But that is Singapore. In contrast, the 1987 “People Power” Philippine Constitution explicitly protects freedom of expression, freedom of speech, and press freedom in Section 4 of its Article III, and recognizes the citizenry’s right to information “on matters of public concern” in Section 7 of the same Article.
When he issued Executive Order No. 2 in 2016, mandating access to information held by agencies of the Executive Branch, President Rodrigo Duterte even said he hoped that it would encourage Congress to finally pass a Freedom of Information (FOI) law that would enable everyone to access information held by all three branches of government. A number of FOI bills have been introduced in Congress over the past two decades, but none has ever made it beyond the committee level, despite the invaluable role public access to information could play in combating corruption and assuring government transparency.
Despite Mr. Duterte’s 2016 declaration, instead of an FOI bill that would truly make government-held information accessible to every citizen and the press, Senate President Vicente Sotto III, one of his closest allies, has re-introduced in the 18th Congress a bill that would penalize posting and disseminating false information online. A veritable clone of the Singapore law, the Sotto bill would impose the same penalties of fines and imprisonment on alleged offenders.
If it passes the Congressional mill with only minor changes and with most of its 14 sections intact, Senate Bill No. 9, the “Anti False Content Act,” would abridge free expression and press freedom despite their being expressly protected by the Philippine Constitution. By empowering the government to censor what it considers “false content,” it will also limit the information the public can access to only what the current regime approves of.
The Sotto bill imposes prison terms of up to 12 years and fines from P200,000 to P2 million against those individuals who “create and/or publish false and misleading content” on social media, news sites, blogs and websites. It would also penalize the “intermediaries,” meaning such platforms as Google and Twitter, on which they were published, should they refuse to correct, take down, or block content — presumably whether text, videos, photos, and other illustrations — that the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Philippine National Police (PNP), or the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) declares to be false and misleading .
On the excuse that the published information affects “public interest,” rather than wait for a complaint, the DOJ can issue any of the above orders to the administrators of the platforms in which it was published. “Public interest” is very loosely defined in the bill’s Section 3 as “anything that affects national security, public health, public safety, public order, confidence in the government, and the international relations of the Philippines.”
The bill would thus limit the discourse on public issues to what the government approves of by criminalizing any information its agencies interpret as false because it affects “national security,” “confidence in the government,” or is about “the international relations of the Philippines.” Those phrases can be interpreted as applying to almost anything, including investigative reports and online posts critical of this or that government policy.
Senator Sotto claimed in a television interview that neither print nor broadcast media will be affected once his copycat bill becomes law. But the reality is that the country’s newspapers and broadcast networks have online sites on which they replicate in text, photos, and video the entire contents of their print and broadcast editions. Some also upload original content on their websites and on YouTube. Both those who generate the contents of the online sites of the country’s newspapers and radio and television networks as well the sites themselves will therefore be liable to the penalties to which those who have blogs, personal and institutional websites, or accounts on social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., will be subject.
There is no denying the harm that false information can inflict on the need for the informed discourse crucial to the making of the politically engaged public that an authentic democracy needs. But the damage a law penalizing those supposedly responsible for disinformation can do, because it empowers government to decide what is true or false, is a far greater danger. Every government has a stake in favorable publicity, whether generated and spread through the old media of print and broadcasting or the blogs, websites, news sites, and social media networks in the Internet. The power such a law will endow government with will inevitably be abused.
If it becomes law, Senate Bill Number 9 will be especially dangerous given the current political context in which a regime that has practically unchallenged control over the Executive, Judicial, and Legislative branches of government has again and again demonstrated its contempt for criticism, free expression and press freedom. It can declare what is true false if unfavorable to it, and the false true if it suits its purposes, and the courts can dutifully uphold its judgment and impose the corresponding penalties.
It is far from paranoid to think these likely. Not only have some of the Duterte government’s own agencies generated and spread false and misleading information, its online trolls and bots and its mercenaries in print and broadcasting have also debased informed and democratic discourse by spreading disinformation about journalists and the independent press, the opposition, farmers and workers organizations, lawyers, Church people, and administration critics.
Journalists’ groups and non-government organizations are already doing what they can to stop the dissemination and sharing of “fake news.” Facebook and other social media sites have put fact-checking mechanisms in place to protect Netizens from false and misleading content. The online sites that spread outright lies have been exposed by journalists’ and media advocacy groups and are fairly well known. Media literacy programs with an emphasis on understanding the new media are already in place in the educational system.
As dangerous as it is to free expression and press freedom, Senate Bill No. 9 is therefore also patently unnecessary. The Philippines does not have to ape authoritarian Singapore’s use of coercion to address the “fake news” problem. The initiatives of media literate citizens, technology companies and responsible journalists in combating false information should be enough — and are well within the implicit Constitutional mandate of media self-regulation.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).