Li­cense to chill

Business World - - OPINION - LUIS V. TEODORO

Whether they’re in the op­po­si­tion or ad­min­is­tra­tion side, the dis­tin­guished sen­a­tors of this en­dan­gered Repub­lic, who’re oth­er­wise hope­lessly frac­tious, share one thing: their ha­tred for “fake news” — and a con­se­quent, ir­re­press­ible urge to pe­nal­ize its dis­sem­i­na­tors.

That’s what last week’s hear­ings on the sub­ject led by the Se­nate Com­mit­tee on Public In­for­ma­tion and Mass Me­dia chaired by Se­na­tor Grace Poe sug­gests, among other equally trou­ble­some im­pli­ca­tions on press free­dom, free ex­pres­sion, and the lit­tle that’s left of Philip­pine democ­racy.

Many of this coun­try’s sen­a­tors, con­gress­men, and more prom­i­nent of­fi­cials, what­ever their po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tions, claim they have been, or are still, vic­tims of false in­for­ma­tion. Op­po­si­tion sen­a­tors re­lated how they’ve been falsely ac­cused of var­i­ous wrong­do­ings, one ex­am­ple be­ing that of blog­ger and Pres­i­den­tial Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Op­er­a­tions Of­fice (PCOO) As­sis­tant Sec­re­tary Mocha Uson’s and her prin­ci­pal’s claim that Se­na­tor An­to­nio Tril­lanes IV has se­cret off­shore bank ac­counts.

But it was ad­min­is­tra­tion sen­a­tors Manny Pac­quiao and Vi­cente Sotto who were par­tic­u­larly stri­dent dur­ing the hear­ings. Pac­quiao said he has been ac­cused of sup­port­ing ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings (EJKs) be­cause op­po­si­tion sen­a­tors did not bother to show him a res­o­lu­tion con­demn­ing EJKs.

For his part, Sotto de­clared in his open­ing state­ment that he has been called names and ac­cused of crimes by peo­ple on­line who won’t iden­tify them­selves — and promised be­fore the en­tire coun­try that he will “hunt (them) down.”

One can ap­pre­ci­ate Pac­quiao’s out­rage, but only if it means he’s against the drug- re­lated killings that have trans­formed poor com­mu­ni­ties into war­rens of fear and mur­der and dis­graced the coun­try be­fore the rest of the planet.

As for Sotto, some­one should sug­gest to him that one way to stop the dis­sem­i­na­tion of “fake news” is to ig­nore those who won’t iden­tify them­selves. Any­one who doesn’t at­tach his name to his rants is prob­a­bly ly­ing and doesn’t de­serve any re­ply. Ig­nor­ing ev­ery such in­di­vid­ual’s claims as of no value what­so­ever should help si­lence the sound and the fury that plague so much of so­cial me­dia.

On the other hand, one op­tion is to re­ply log­i­cally and with fac­tual proof to those of his crit­ics who do iden­tify them­selves — or to file li­bel com­plaints against them, rather than threat­en­ing to “hunt them down.”

The coun­try’s 85-year-old li­bel law and the 2012 Cy­ber Crime Pre­ven­tion Act are op­pres­sive enough. Both man­date prison terms for li­bel in print and for li­bel com­mit­ted on­line in ad­di­tion to fines, which should move the learned sen­a­tors to ask why a law pe­nal­iz­ing the dis­sem­i­na­tion of “fake news” should even be con­sid­ered. The hear­ing was nev­er­the­less al­most cer­tainly only a pre­lim­i­nary step in the process of dis­cussing and even­tu­ally pass­ing such a law.

This col­umn noted last June 23 that the Na­tional Union of Jour­nal­ists of the Philip­pines (NUJP) and the Cen­ter for Me­dia Free­dom and Re­spon­si­bil­ity (CMFR) had launched a means for In­ter­net users — who ar­guably con­sist to­day of in­di­vid­u­als who’re mostly into so­cial me­dia as sources and trans­mit­ters of in­for­ma­tion — to iden­tify lies prop­a­gated on­line. That ini­tia­tive is in ad­di­tion to efforts by some me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions to more closely fact-check the state­ments of news sources and to mon­i­tor the ac­cu­racy of their own re­ports.

But Se­na­tor Joel Vil­lanueva and his learned col­leagues are ei­ther un­aware of such ini­tia­tives by jour­nal­ists’ and me­dia ad­vo­cacy groups, or be­lieve that they are not enough.

Vil­lanueva him­self has filed a bill that if passed into law would pe­nal­ize with fines and im­pris­on­ment those who spread “fake news” in print, over ra­dio and tele­vi­sion, or on­line. On the other hand, it was op­po­si­tion Se­na­tor Fran­cisco Pangili­nan who called for the Se­nate hear­ings to look into the li­a­bil­i­ties of blog­gers who post such “news” and of so­cial me­dia sites when they fail to pre­vent such lies from be­ing dis­sem­i­nated.

While the Se­nate in­quiry could have helped en­lighten both law­mak­ers and cit­i­zens on the is­sues in­volved (it didn’t), it can now lead to the even­tual pas­sage of the Vil­lanueva bill or some­thing sim­i­lar. What it could have done, but did not, was to an­swer a num­ber of ques­tions, among them what ex­actly is “fake news,” and who or what will de­ter­mine whether an item in so­cial me­dia, a blog, a news site, or in print, ra­dio and tele­vi­sion qual­i­fies.

The dan­gers to free ex­pres­sion, press free­dom, and what’s left of Philip­pine democ­racy will es­ca­late once a govern­ment agency is charged with both re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

All gov­ern­ments have a stake in fa­vor­able pub­lic­ity, and their agen­cies are hardly likely to be so im­par­tial as to la­bel as false their own fraud­u­lent is­suances or to iden­tify as le­git­i­mate those re­ports, even if fac­tu­ally ac­cu­rate, that are crit­i­cal of govern­ment.

The pro­lif­er­a­tion of “fake news” is driven not only by me­dia il­lit­er­acy ( public mis­un­der­stand­ing of the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and its role in hu­man af­fairs), but also by the de­lib­er­ate ma­nip­u­la­tion of hu­man per­cep­tions by forces with po­lit­i­cal and other in­ter­ests op­posed to cit­i­zen ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the is­sues that con­front in­di­vid­u­als, com­mu­ni­ties and na­tions.

Prac­ti­cally lim­it­less ac­cess to means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, which the new in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies such as the In­ter­net and mo­bile phones have made pos­si­ble, has en­abled al­most any­one to ac­quire mis­lead­ing in­for­ma­tion and share it with oth­ers. But lies are not dis­sem­i­nated solely by those who un­know­ingly use so­cial me­dia, blogs, and on­line sites to spread fraud­u­lent in­for­ma­tion. In­di­vid­u­als and groups also de­lib­er­ately spread them to ad­vance a po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic, or other goal.

But ac­count­abil­ity in the ex­er­cise of the right to com­mu­ni­cate is best en­forced, not by the State, but by the me­dia com­mu­nity it­self as well as by a me­di­alit­er­ate public re­spon­si­ble enough to rec­og­nize and not to spread lies from what­ever source.

There is no ex­ag­ger­at­ing the harm false in­for­ma­tion in­flicts on so­ci­ety.

“Fake news” about the most press­ing con­cerns, whether it’s the en­vi­ron­ment, is­sues of war and peace, the state of the econ­omy, or how po­lit­i­cal power is mis­used, has led to mass dis­in­for­ma­tion — the very op­po­site of the in­formed cit­i­zenry ev­ery so­ci­ety needs.

By in­flu­enc­ing the shap­ing of public opin­ion to fa­vor only their in­ter­ests, the mak­ers and dis­sem­i­na­tors of “fake news” also de­base demo­cratic dis­course. But State reg­u­la­tion and cen­sor­ship is a so­lu­tion to the prob­lem only for those ig­no­rant of the com­plex­i­ties of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and free ex­pres­sion is­sues. There are no quick fixes that can solve a prob­lem that has long haunted those hun­gry for the in­for­ma­tion that will en­able them to un­der­stand, and if nec­es­sary, change the world.

The pro­nounced use of so­cial me­dia in the spread of false in­for­ma­tion has made it seem as if it were a new phenomenon and that so­cial me­dia are en­tirely to blame for it. But “fake news” via the old me­dia of print has been around for over a cen­tury, and has been dis­sem­i­nated to ma­nip­u­late public opin­ion for or against in­di­vid­u­als and groups, State poli­cies, and even en­tire na­tions.

But the greater dan­ger is that, in the con­text of State of­fi­cials’ ten­dency to ex­act re­venge on their crit­ics (Pac­quiao, for ex­am­ple, is un­able to ap­pre­ci­ate the fact that be­ing crit­i­cized is part of be­ing in public of­fice), any bill that will seem to ad­dress the prob­lem could hand­ily pass Congress de­spite the con­straints it will ex­act on the right to com­mu­ni­cate and on free ex­pres­sion. It will be a State li­cense to chill those rights in these trou­bled and trou­bling times when their free ex­er­cise is most ur­gently needed.

*** Last Fri­day’s col­umn said that 3,800 EJKs would be a third of those that hap­pened dur­ing the nine years of the Ar­royo regime. It should have said 3,800 is THREE TIMES those com­mit­ted dur­ing the Ar­royo ad­min­is­tra­tion. My apolo­gies.

Ac­count­abil­ity in the ex­er­cise of the right to com­mu­ni­cate is best en­forced, not by the State, but by the me­dia com­mu­nity it­self.

LUIS V. TEODORO is on Face­book and Twit­ter (@ luis­teodoro). The views ex­pressed in Van­tage Point are his own and do not rep­re­sent the views of the Cen­ter for Me­dia Free­dom and Re­spon­si­bil­ity. www.luis­teodoro.com

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