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Rights groups wary as NBI summons 17 for ‘fake news’

Human rights groups are pushing back after the National Bureau of Investigation summoned at least 17 individuals for allegedly spreading false information online that “could endanger public order” as the country deals with an unprecedented health crisis and widespread socioeconomic problems arising from the coronavirus pandemic.

Two prominent lawyers warned that the government may be using the national health emergency as a pretext to suppress legitimate criticism of public officials and policies.

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NBI Cybercrime Division chief Vic Lorenzo said the bureau had stepped up its investigation of the sources of fake news on the internet, particularly those relating to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We know the importance of social media but, at the same time, we have to prevent publication of fake news because it could endanger public order,” said Lorenzo, adding that more subpoenas are expected to be issued by the NBI.

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Of the 17 people who were summoned, seven have already responded while one has deactivated the social media account tagged by the NBI as a source of fake news, Lorenzo said in an interview on Thursday.

“Some people are saying that going after sources of fake news is not important [but] the mandate of the NBI is to investigate violations of the law, regardless if there’s COVID-19 or not,” Lorenzo said.

Unlawful utterances

He said there is a reason why the NBI is looking to charge the fake news spreaders under Article 154 of the Revised Penal Code, pertaining to the “unlawful use of means of publication and unlawful utterances.”

“For example, if there’s false news on the extension of the lockdown or a nationwide lockdown, wouldn’t that create public disorder or public panic? When you say there’s a nationwide lockdown, the result would be panic buying. Our fears would be heightened. That’s what we’re addressing and [why we’re] focusing our efforts on false news,” Lorenzo said.

But lawyers Chel Diokno of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) and Edre Olalia of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) warned that the coronavirus pandemic was increasingly being used as an excuse to suppress human rights and civil liberties.

Diokno, who said he had volunteered to be the defense lawyer of a netizen who was subpoenaed for criticizing the government response to the health crisis, maintained that his client’s social media activity was well within his rights as a Filipino citizen.

He also assailed the NBI’s “faulty’’ service of the subpoena, noting that the document received by his client did not even cite the allegedly unlawful post but merely stated that the summoned person was being investigated for possible violation of Article 154.

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Olalia on Friday agreed that the NBI’s action had a “chilling effect” on the people who have the freedom to air complaints against the government. The subpoenas, he said, may be used for “political harassment, repression, legal bullying and subsequent punishment on free speech and expression.”

Threat of reprisal

“The message is quite clear: this government and those in power have no tolerance [for], much less give the warranted importance to, free speech, expression, dissent and vigilance on matters of paramount public concern,” Olalia said. “Not a few [people] have already expressed fear, anxiety … in verbalizing or publicly making known their opinions and comments because of the threat of reprisal.”

While the bureau has the power to issue subpoenas, the law still limits that power, Olalia said. “The NBI has power to investigate on its own or upon orders of the [Secretary of Justice], but anyone who receives an NBI subpoena has no obligation to provide any information or evidence.”

Since the agency has no power to cite a person in contempt, he said, the subpoenaed individual may choose not to honor the summons—and the NBI cannot fine or detain that person. “It may or may not lead to the filing of criminal charges. But whether [the case] will prosper is a different matter,” he said, adding that only a court can cite a person in contempt.

Diokno on Friday gave some advice for netizens who may be summoned by the NBI.

“Get a lawyer immediately. It is better to find a lawyer that [you] already know or someone who is trustworthy,” he said. The lawyer should ask for a copy of the complaint and other supporting documents from the bureau.

It may be best for the summoned persons not to go to the NBI alone or just have their lawyer represent them instead, he added.

“In case an NBI agent contacts you or visits you, ask for the name [of the agent] and his ID. Write it down or, if the agent agrees, take a photo of the ID. Emphasize that you cannot answer questions without the presence of your lawyer, but say it in a nice way,” Diokno said. —With a report from Nikka G. Valenzuela

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TAGS: coronavirus Philippines, COVID-19 Philippines, Diokno, fake news, NBI
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