NUJP: Laws vs fake news can be used for censorship
MANILA, Philippines — The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) on Monday cautioned Congress against addressing the problem of “fake news” through legislation, warning that even well-meaning laws may end up being used for censorship.
In its position paper on Senate Resolution No. 191 which pushed for an inquiry into the proliferation and spread of false information, the NUJP urged lawmakers not to use the issue as a pretext to restrict or justify censorship or to draft vague and overbroad laws criminalizing disinformation.
Instead, it pushed for more aggressive fact-checking and the strengthening of media literacy projects as it reiterated calls to create an independent, multisector National Press Council to allow the practice of self-regulation and help raise professional standards.
The NUJP also recommended the development of a communications policy for “responding to critical or unflattering news reports through clarificatory statements and responses that do not resort to calling these reports as ‘fake,’ ‘manipulated’ or ‘fabricated.’”
Poor as target
At a hearing of the Senate committee on public information and mass media, Sen. Raffy Tulfo observed that free mobile data—which Facebook and other social media networks launched purportedly to help democratize internet service—was being used by fake news peddlers to prey on the poor.
“The poorest of the poor are the target of those behind the spread of fake news. Why? It’s because they cannot buy [cell phone] load. All they have is free internet. They do not have access to other social media platforms. They have no way to fact-check [what they read on social media],” he said.
Tulfo, a former broadcaster whose election to the Senate was buoyed by his popularity on social media, said this was very evident when the government imposed lockdowns and rolled out its vaccination program to stem COVID-19.
He noted that thousands of poor Filipinos were forced to get inoculated after a “syndicate” claimed on social media that those who refused would not be included in the distribution of “ayuda” or doles.
A resource person, veteran journalist Ellen Tordesillas, president of Vera Files, a news organization that Facebook had tapped as one of its fact-checkers, said the lack of gatekeeping among social media users, including so-called influencers, was among the primary reasons why disinformation had become rampant.
“For us journalists, fact-checking is nothing new. Our cardinal rule in journalism is ‘verify, verify, verify,’” Tordesillas said.
The hearing was conducted in connection with two separate proposed measures that Senators Grace Poe and Jinggoy Estrada had filed to fight fake news.
Poe’s Senate Bill No. 547 wants to amend the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for public officials and employees to bar them from becoming sources of misinformation.
Estrada’s bill, on the other hand, seeks to amend the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 by declaring the creation and dissemination of fake news as criminal acts.
Traditional media vs ‘hao-siao’
Tulfo, meanwhile, vowed to make good on his campaign promise to push for the decriminalization of libel although he said that “hao-siao” (corrupt) journalists and “irresponsible” netizens should not benefit from this.
Tulfo flared up after Danilo Arao, a journalist and professor at the University of the Philippines’ College of Mass Communication, said that journalists and ordinary citizens accused of defamation should be treated equally in terms of legal accountability.
“Having a distinction between ordinary people and professional journalists defeats the purpose of citizen journalism, which we should embrace and promote,” said Arao, who attended the hearing online as a resource person.
When Tulfo asked him if he was in favor of making bogus journalists and social media users free from any criminal liability for libelous statements, the latter said yes.
Tulfo replied in a raised voice: “No, I don’t agree. I’m sorry, Mr. Danilo Arao. I disagree.”
“Right now, many extortionists are clapping for you. ‘Thank you, Mr. Arao! Long live Mr. Arao! We, extortionists and shameless, are free as a bird,’” he added.
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