Singapore passed early last May an anti-“fake news” law that will be implemented this month. The “Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation” Act gives government the power to compel online news sites and even chat groups to remove statements “against the public interest” and to correct them. Not only individuals will be affected but also social media and news organizations like BBC and Reuters.
In the Philippines, the generation and sharing of false information has undermined informed citizen opinion and decision making on a number of issues, among them the Duterte regime’s supposed campaign against illegal drugs, extrajudicial killings, the proposal to shift to a federal form of government, China’s occupation of the West Philippine Sea — and, as the May 13 elections demonstrated, even who to vote for.
A bill similar to Singapore’s was introduced in the Philippine Senate in 2017 It was not limited in application to online news sites and chat groups, but included print and broadcasting, and imposed fines and even imprisonment for any violation of its provisions. If it had passed into law it would have been in violation of Article III, Section 4 of the Philippine Constitution which protects free speech, free expression, press freedom and freedom of assembly. But it was proposed because of the harmful effects of “fake news” not only on the making of the informed public a democracy needs, but also on the reputations of individuals and groups about whom false information is spread in furtherance of a particular purpose. Among those affected are independent journalists, human rights defenders, and critics of the current regime.
Disinformation has been used to conceal the brutality of the Duterte “war on drugs” and the evils of the Marcos kleptocracy, as well as to support plunderers, mass murderers, and corrupt officials. Because it has reduced public discourse to who can mobilize enough online trolls and print and broadcast hacks to drown out the voices of reason, the inevitable question is still how “fake news” or disinformation may be best combatted.
Combating disinformation without violating civil rights demands the involvement of a number of actors including the government. The Constitution’s Article III, Section 4 thrusts upon the State the duty of defending press freedom in order to encourage the development of an independent press and an informed citizenry that is critically engaged in public affairs.
The intimidation, harassments and other attacks on the press are completely at odds with it, and least of all should such assaults come from such governments as those with democratic pretensions. But because the Duterte administration has even accused independent journalists and media organizations of involvement in plots to destabilize it, it will take organized citizen action, together with responsible media organizations and journalists, to compel government observance of its constitutional duty not only to protect press freedom and free expression but also to enhance the exercise of both.
That will not be served by passing any law against the generation and dissemination of disinformation. As dangerous as “ fake news” is, combating it via legislation will do more harm than good. The first question such a law would provoke is who or what will decide what is false or authentic information? The likely answer is a government agency, in which case, because governments have an interest in favorable publicity, “fake news” could very easily be declared true and its opposite false. Such a law could lead to the weakening of the press’ fourth estate function of monitoring government as well as the right of the citizenry to hold government to account.
What is urgent is for government to reform its own media system, which has been accused of generating and spreading false information. It can first of all make that system financially and politically independent. Only during the Corazon Aquino administration was this seriously considered. The then head of the Philippine Information Agency (PIA) proposed it, but failed to obtain enough support to make it a reality. During the Aquino III administration, the Secretary of the Presidential Communication Operations Office (PCOO) floated the idea of making the system independent of whatever regime is in power, but that did not prosper either.
In one of his speeches, President Rodrigo Duterte said that government media could “copy” the BBC model. That model consists of the BBC’s being funded through a mandated share of the taxes on TV and radio sets and other means of information transmission. It will require congressional action and presidential approval for that model to be adopted. But nothing came of Mr. Duterte’s remark.
Part of the reforms needed in the government media system is the retraining of its editorial staff and reorienting it from its current public relations focus to a public information perspective. A system of public information would cease to report merely on whatever regime is in power, but would provide information even on the opposition and government critics in furtherance not only of the journalistic imperatives of truth telling, accuracy and fairness but also for the making of the truly informed citizenry democracy needs.
What can also help is the institution in both the public and private school system of media or news literacy programs, starting at the primary grades up to the tertiary level. Citizen understanding of what constitutes news and how it is gathered, processed and disseminated; the values and standards of the press, as well as the political and economic interests behind the media, can help the public not only to distinguish disinformation from news, but also to intelligently demand better press performance. A media-literate public can be sufficiently informed to demand that the press and media observe their own standards of truth telling and accuracy.
Some media organizations have made fact-checking not only the claims of news sources but also their own intended issuances standard practice. Facebook has also engaged online news sites Rappler and Vera files in fact-checking social media posts, and a consortium of journalism schools and media organizations is similarly engaged. Media advocacy as well as civil society groups have also taken it upon themselves to release lists of online sites that are not trustworthy and which have a record of disseminating false information.
But fact-checking is not enough. Part of the media training future journalists and other citizens should be getting is how to evaluate such issuances from government and even some media organizations as the “matrices” that the administration and its allies claim prove the involvement of journalists and other personalities in a supposed plot to oust President Duterte.
Not only in journalism but in other disciplines as well is the identification of the sources of their information necessary for the sake of credibility. A so-called “reliable source” not only has to be identified or at least described; its claims also have to be verified by consulting other sources. Absent these qualities, a self- described “news report” is of doubtful credibility. Mixing opinion and fact is another warning sign that the same piece doesn’t have enough facts to begin with and was likely to have been driven by the prior agenda of discrediting certain individuals and groups even without proof that they’re engaged in wrongdoing or even a criminal enterprise.
The above points need to be part of any media and news literacy program, as well as the courses of study in the country’s journalism schools, together with an emphasis on the ethics of truth-telling and the professional standards of accuracy. What is crucial is public understanding of the role, the values and the responsibilities of the press and media, whether old or new. Disinformation is a constant peril in communication, and only a media-literate public can recognize and combat it.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).