Senate hearing consensus: No need for new law on fake news

There are enough existing laws to address the problem of fake news, public officials, journalists, bloggers and media lawyers agreed Tuesday while noting the government’s role in enabling the spread of misinformation.

At the second leg of the Senate hearing on fake news Jan. 30, Sen. Grace Poe, who chairs the Committee on Public Information and Mass Media, said Congress cannot legislate thought control as it curtails free speech.

“In our last hearing, there was a proposal to regulate fake news through legislation. However almost all participants, including me, expressed alarm that a new law could lead to censorship,” Poe said.

Senate Bill 1492, or the anti-fake news act, seeks to penalize persons and platforms that publish or circulate false news in print, broadcast and online, with twice the fine for public officials.

Instead of a law, remedies include an educated public and a government that would “cease to be the greatest enabler of manufactured information,” Poe said.

“Opinions passed off as news are as deadly as lies. Especially if it’s from a public official,” she added.

Sen. Paolo Benigno Aquino IV said most websites and Facebook pages that share fake news appear to support President Rodrigo Duterte. (See Aquino list shows fake news sites bear Duterte’s name)

Communications Secretary Martin Andanar denied knowing who are behind these accounts, saying his office focuses on strengthening government media.

He also defended Assistant Secretary Margaux “Mocha” Uson, whose personal blog has been called out for sharing misinformation and questioned for potential conflict of interest.

“Mocha’s blog does not represent (Presidential Communications Operations Office),” he said.

Communications Secretary Martin Andanar says there are legal remedies in place to address fake news during the second leg of the Senate hearing on the proliferation of fake news. (Photo by Arianne Christian Tapao)

Yet, Poe pointed out that Uson’s blog overlaps with her official function and perhaps makes use of government time.

“You need to be able to also spread whatever your policies, your good news are to the public,” she said. “On the other hand, as Communications Assistant Secretary, it’s very hard to separate (Uson’s) own personal opinion from that of the PCOO.”

The public officials’ code of ethics says all public officials may engage in the private practice of their profession, provided “that such practice will not conflict or tend to conflict with their official functions.”

Asked by Poe if the PCOO has considered shutting down Uson’s personal blog, Andanar said he has called out Uson many times for posts attacking certain public officials and asked her to take them down.

The problem, according to blogger Tonyo Cruz, is the lack of standards governing social media use of public officials like Uson.

“There is no example given by our political organizations, public officials, public offices on the proper use of social media,” he said.

Since the government uses public funds in its social media use, it should be transparent on the use of its budget and should name bloggers operating under it, Cruz said.

“It can start there,” he said. “For instance, how much is the PCOO budget?”

Communications Undersecretary Lorraine Badoy said viciousness is not the sole propriety of pro-Duterte bloggers. “It cuts both ways,” she said.

Badoy accused Vice President Leni Robredo of spreading fake news, citing her a video message to the United Nations on the supposed summary killings under the war on drugs.

Journalist Ellen Tordesillas noted that it is President Rodrigo Duterte who is the “number one” source of fake news. (See VERA FILES YEARENDER: The most repeated false claims of 2017)

“And the worrisome part of this is that most of the sources of disinformation is being perpetrated by government officials on taxpayers’ money,” the VERA Files president said.

Earlier, VERA Files found that the most viral fake news from September to December 2017 benefited Duterte and former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. (See VERA FILES YEARENDER: Who benefited most from fake news, and other questions, answered in three charts)

Meanwhile, Andanar accused anti-Duterte blogger Jover Laurio, who owns Pinoy Ako Blog, of spreading disinformation, and showed snapshots of her posts.

Lawyer Gilbert Andres came to Laurio’s defense, saying the snapshots of Laurio’s posts are just “opinion.”

“There is a higher accountability for government,” BusinessWorld editor-in-chief Roby Alampay said, noting that it is the government’s role to spread responsible information.

Yet, saying freedom of expression has been abused, Sen. Emmanuel Pacquiao halfway through the hearing moved to license bloggers on social media.

“Do you agree that all bloggers need to get a license so we can control them?” he asked the panel.

But Kapisanan ng Brodkaster ng Pilipinas lawyer Rudolph Jularbal said the Internet’s borderless nature makes the senator’s idea not feasible.

“It’s practically asking for the impossible if you want to control bloggers or those who make use of the Internet,” he said.

Political strategist Armand Nocum warned that the spread of fake news, made possible by a multi-billion dollar e-commerce industry, would even become “wilder” in the upcoming 2019 senatorial polls.

He suggested that the government identify social media operators as businesses to make them accountable, adding that ethics is not in the equation unlike in traditional media.

“Because they are not answerable to anyone even the government,” said Nocum, a former journalist and a social media operator himself.

If they were under the supervision of a company, these social media operators would be more responsible, he said.