The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) is going after online misinformation related to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) that has "the tendency to disrupt public order," an official said amid apprehension that the bureau is out to stifle free speech.
Victor Lorenzo, chief of the NBI's cybercrime division, said they are under a "general order" to look into COVID-19-related "fake news" either reported by the public or monitored by the division. Another official said the NBI has sent more than a dozen subpoenas in relation to this investigation.
Lorenzo said they are focusing on possible violations of Article 154 of the Revised Penal Code in relation to Republic Act No. 10175, or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.
Article 154 penalizes "any person who by means of printing, lithography, or any other means of publication shall publish or cause to be published as news any false news which may endanger the public order, or cause damage to the interest or credit of the State."
"Parang ang pinalalabas kasi, parang arm kami ng suppression, pero hindi, hindi yun ang intention namin, hindi 'yun ang mandate namin," Lorenzo told GMA News Online.
"Ang mandate namin is to investigate and at the same time to stop proliferation ng mga fake news," he said.
He said people who post "constructive" comments about public officials' performance of their duty "could be confident" they are not violating any law. He also said the division is "mindful" of the benefits of social media.
"But if you are violating Article 154 of the Revised Penal Code... expect us to do our job, which is to actually investigate and do the fact-finding and give you the opportunity to air your side," he said.
He said claims that the NBI is becoming a tool for the curtailment of the freedom of speech have "no basis."
"Nagbe-benefit naman kami kung magsasalita ang publiko, bakit naman namin isusuppress 'yan. What we're trying to suppress right now are those fake news that will have the tendency to disrupt public order," he said.
He said the NBI is looking into individual posts on social media in relation to COVID-19. When asked if news organizations are also covered, he said: "Kung ang news organization would be propagating news that are fake, they could also be held liable for Article 154 ng Revised Penal Code."
Human rights lawyer Chel Diokno said Thursday that he has taken on the case of a private person whom the NBI has issued a subpoena to over a "publicly posted article concerning an alleged misuse of government funds."
Diokno said the NBI is going after even "ordinary citizens" expressing their sentiments on the government's COVID-19 response on social media.
"We traced it back sa isang post na nagsasabi na ang gobyerno daw instead of providing health care for the public ay bumibili pa ng P2 billion na private jet," Lorenzo said.
He said the NBI is "interested" to determine if this is false information, or if the person who posted it could be a "potential whistleblower" who could "guide" the bureau on an investigation for graft.
He said the NBI has a "limited workforce." Aside from misinformation, his division is also investigating online scams, he said.
Before issuing subpoenas, the NBI first verifies the identities of the subjects of their monitoring, Lorenzo said. After sending out summons, they would wait for a written or verbal explanation and then assess if the subject should be cleared or held liable, he said.
Given current social distancing measures, he said subjects of subpoenas may give their official response via landline or email instead of personally going to the NBI's headquarters in Manila. -MDM, GMA News