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Groups question anti-fake news provision in COVID-19 response bill

The law which gives President Rodrigo Duterte additional powers to address the effects of COVID-19 on the country may be used by government officials to fend off legitimate criticisms amid the crisis, advocacy groups said on Wednesday.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) and Democracy.Net.PH are referring to Section 6 which penalizes “individuals or groups creating, perpetrating or spreading false information regarding the COVID-19 crisis on social media and other platforms as well as information having no valid beneficial effect on the population, and are clearly geared to promote chaos, panic, anarchy or confusion."

The spread of so-called fake news is one of the acts punishable under the law, which set a penalty of two months jail time or a fine of P10,000 to P1 million or both, at the discretion of the court.

“This is very dangerous since we do not even have a legal definition of 'fake news'. This alone invalidates the law,” the NUJP said in a statement.

The NUJP cited Article 3 Section 4 of the Philippine Constitution which states “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”

“Who, then, is to determine what is true and what is fake? The President? The problem is much of the disinformation and misinformation that has been bombarding us way before this crisis has come from officials, including Duterte, and supporters of this government,” the NUJP said.

“This [Bayanihan law] is clearly a law that runs afoul of this constitutional provision,” it added.

Democracy.Net.PH, an internet and information and communications technology advocacy group, said politicians could weaponize the Bayanihan law due to the provision penalizing fake news peddlers.

“As worded, the judgment of content to be 'clearly geared to promote chaos, panic, anarchy, fear, or confusion' requires judicial intervention," the group said in a statement.

"As our courts are closed, there is nothing to check any existing or future abuse by onion-skinned national or local officials,” it added.

“There is currently no constitutionally-compliant definition of 'false news'. For this reason, there is no statutory definition of the term. Because the term necessarily leads ordinary men to differ at what this means, there may be unintentional or accidental errors of ordinary citizens that may make them unjustly liable under this clause,” the group said.

The NUJP said no law should be passed which restricts the people’s constitutional right to freedom of expression, even if such opinions were objectionable.

“This is the reason we have always been for the decriminalization of libel,” the NUJP said.

As of the afternoon of March 25, the Philippines has already recorded 636 COVID-19 cases. Of this number, 38 have already died. -NB, GMA News