By Camille A. Aguinaldo
PRESIDENTIAL spokesperson Harry L. Roque, Jr. on Wednesday said he opposes the passage of a bill penalizing government officials who create or spread fake news, saying the proposed measure may be used to target government officials in the opposition.
“This is my question: will high government officials allied with the administration be tried in court if they violate this law? Chances are, in our history, as long as you’re allied with the government, you will not be tried in court. Who will be tried if we’re going to have a law like this? Government officials in the opposition,” he said in Filipino during the Senate hearing on the proposed measure.
Senator Paolo Benigno A. Aquino IV, a minority senator, immediately sought clarification from Mr. Roque and asked whether his statements indicated that the Duterte administration would use the bill against members of the opposition.
“Mr. Secretary, you’re speaking as the alter ego the President. You’re saying that no ally of the President will be tried but only the opposition?” the senator asked.
“It’s a possibility. Please, I was just illustrating that the law is unconstitutional because it will violate the fundamental freedom of expression because it could be used as a tool for persecution against the opposition. It’s very stringent as a spokesperson, I’m even voicing my concern for the opposition….I’m not saying that this is the policy of the Duterte administration,” Mr. Roque replied.
Senate Bill No. 1680, filed last Feb. 6 by Senator Grace S. Poe-Llamanzares, seeks to amend Republic Act No. 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees in order to penalize government employees who publish or disseminate false news or information on any platform. They are also prohibited from publishing their personal opinion during their working hours.
Mr. Roque clarified that he testified in the Senate hearing in his capacity as a former constitutional law professor and defender of press freedom. He said the official position of the Executive branch on the bill was: “We respect the sole prerogative of Congress to enact legislation.”
He reiterated that the bill was unconstitutional, saying that even fake news was covered under the constitutional freedom of expression. He also said it was the obligation of all Filipinos, not only government officials, to uphold the truth.
“Even fake news is protected. Why? We’re not saying that we resort to fake news. But it’s important that there should be a free marketplace of ideas. Free speech is given protection because our assumption is that the people have enough understanding as long as they have access to free market of ideas. They can identify themselves which is the truth or a lie,” he said.
For his part, Senator Antonio F. Trillanes IV, chair of the Senate committee on civil service, government reorganization and professional regulation, maintained that the bill was meant to remind public officials of their responsibility as they were given a higher standard on upholding the truth.
“This is what we want: if you are a public official, you should understand more, you should know what is fake news or not. If you do that, that should not be done by a public official,” he said.