Bill seeking to criminalize fake news potentially unconstitutional – advocates

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Participants at the recent forum of Southeast Asian advocates of press freedom. PHOTO FROM FACEBOOK POST OF ADE WAHYUDIN

MANILA – A coalition of Southeast Asian press freedom advocates has called on the Senate not to pass a bill seeking to criminalize fake news, calling the measure “potentially unconstitutional,” and inconsistent with the country’s international treaty obligations.

In a letter read during a forum in Makati Nov. 17, addressed to Sen. Grace Poe, chair of the public information and mass media committee, the Advocates for Freedom of Expression Coalition Southeast-Asia (AFEC-SEA) said Senate Bill 1492 “as currently worded is overbroad and is potentially unconstitutional, if passed, for being inconsistent with Section 4, article III of the 1987 Constitution.”

The provision prohibits the passage of any law abridging freedom of speech, expression and of the press.

SB No. 1492 is also incompatible with the Philippines’ treaty obligation under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees the right to freedom of expression, said AFEC-SEA, led by CenterLaw Philippines.

AFEC-SEA, formed in September 2015 to champion freedom of expression in the region, is composed of 12 civil society organizations from Cambodia,Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia and the Philippines.

“Current Philippine criminal laws are enough, and even excessive, regulation against speech,” the letter read, citing laws against libel, slander, incitement to sedition, and offending religious feelings.

“These criminal laws are more than enough to address the concerns brought about by fake news. In fact, these criminal laws should already be considered as excessive as international human rights law encourages the decriminalization of speech-based offenses such as libel,” the letter further read.

SB No. 1492 seeks to punish the “malicious creation and distribution of false news” with a range of fines and jail terms.

Its proponent, Sen. Joel Villanueva, in a hearing chaired by Poe Oct. 4, said the bill if passed would be different from libel. (See Aquino list shows many fake news sites bear Duterte’s name)

“Ang pinaparusahan sa fake news ay ang malisyosong paggawa, paglalathala, pagpapakalat ng maling balita (What the anti-fake news law seeks to penalize are the malicious creation, publication, and spreading of fake news),” Villanueva said.

“Sa libel, kahit totoo ang impormasyon, kapag napatunayang walang mabuting motibo para ipakalat, maari po kayong kasuhan (In libel, even if the information were true, if no good motive is found, one could still be liable), the senator added, but said the definition of fake news could be left to the courts.

Yet, AFEC-SEA noted that while spreading false statements is not justified, “the human right to information and ideas is not limited to what the state may deem as ‘correct’ statements.”

Instead, the coalition advocates for self-regulatory mechanisms to combat fake news, citing efforts by social media companies Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, and in the Philippines, of media organization VERA Files Fact Check.

“The antidote to fake news is not to criminalize fake news but rather to expose its falsity, and to present the truthful facts,” it said.

The letter was signed by Gilbert T. Andres, chairperson of AFEC-SEA. Member organizations signified approval by stamping their logos on the letter.

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”)