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Gov’t supporters in spotlight at Senate hearing on fake news

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Senator Grace Poe (middle), chair of the Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media, quizzes government officials, media personnel and bloggers present during the latest Senate hearing on the fight against fake news on Tuesday, January 30, 2018. -- SENATE PRIB/Alexis Nueva España

By Camille A. Aguinaldo

SHOULD PUBLIC officials let go of their private blogs in social media once they enter government? This question was raised on Tuesday’s inquiry by the Senate committee on public information on the proliferation of fake news in social media led by Senator Grace Poe-Llamanzares, committee chairperson, questioned Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) Secretary Martin M. Andanar regarding the actions of his colleague, Assistant Secretary Esther Margaux Uson on her blog in social media.

Ms. Uson is known as a staunch supporter of President Rodrigo R. Duterte and has expressed her stand on issues related to the President through her Facebook page.

At the hearing, Ms. Poe noted that it could be “very hard” to separate Ms. Uson’s personal opinion from being a communications official and that her blog might have overlapped with her official functions.

“Have you considered that it is a conflict of interest and should be shut down?” Ms. Poe asked.

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“I’ve spoken to Mocha about it. We’ve also spoken about her freedom of expression and also of her way of speaking on her own Facebook page,” Mr. Andanar replied, adding that Ms. Uson has taken down some of her statements on her Facebook page after he had called her out on these posts. The issue on the apparent overlap of official functions among bloggers occupying government posts was highlighted once again in the hearing following the statements of Communications Undersecretary Lorraine Marie T. Badoy, who pointed out that not all misinformation in social media came from bloggers supporting the President. She also claimed: “The misinformation, lies and all these misleadings do not come exclusively from the Duterte camp, neither do they come from officials identified with the government. In fact, the Vice-President (Maria Leonor G. Robredo) is the primary purveyor of fake news. And that the President is maybe a bigger victim than she is,” she said.

Blogger Tonyo Cruz then asked, “Is that the official position of the PCO (Presidential Communications Office) that they are accusing the Office of the Vice-President of spreading fake news? Or is that the personal opinion of Ms. Badoy?”

Ms. Badoy clarified that her statement was a personal opinion. In an interview with reporters, Ms. Poe said the PCO should fix its policy especially on the behavior of its officials in social media. “I am not forbidding them to publish or to say their personal opinion. But if you are with the government, it would result (in) confusion so if you want that privilege, they can do it as a private citizen instead,” she said in Filipino.

For her part, Marie Rafael-Banaag, Communications Assistant Secretary for Operations and Legislative Affairs, told the hearing that the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) is coming up with a draft executive order on the conduct of government officials in social media.

As for policing individuals spreading fake news, media practitioners as well as Mr. Andanar said there was no need for additional laws to counter fake news but instead current laws on media only needed to be imposed. “Is legislation the proper remedy? We note that there are existing laws that may be tapped by anyone seeking redress against fake news or false information,” Mr. Andanar said.

Mr. Andanar then cited provisions on libel and false news publication in the Revised Penal Code and the cyber-libel provision of Republic Act 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012. Bills have also been filed in Congress seeking to penalize those who spread false information in the Internet.

For his part, InterAksyon and BusinessWorld editor-in-chief Roby Alampay said: “At bottom, there are enough laws on libel, cybercrime, anti-bullying, anti-violence against women and children, against disinformation. There are laws that hold government accountable for data or info they come up with.”

Rappler Chief Executive Officer Maria A. Ressa echoed Mr. Andanar’s statement, saying that “the biggest problem is the lack of accountability, the impunity.”

While acknowledging the sentiments of media practitioners, Ms. Poe, meanwhile, believed “legislative solutions exist” but warned on attempts to regulate freedom of expression.

“We may want to erase all the misinformation-disinformation. We should be very careful in trying to regulate or criminalize any speech,” she said.

“Media literacy is the best long-term solution but it should not just be the government. We are grateful for all the private entities, particularly those coming from the media, that teach the netizens how to distinguish real from false information,” she added.

Ms. Poe also encouraged people to use existing laws and institutions, such as the Cybercrime Division of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI).

Her committee is also set to subpoena Facebook, Google and Eduardo “Cocoy” Dayao, the blogger allegedly behind the SilentNoMore Facebook page, to attend the next hearing as well as to invite DICT and telecommunications providers Globe and Smart and the DICT.

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