Media's Public

No new ‘fake news’ law yet; old penal code still applies

By Pachico A. Seares
Public & Standards Editor
SunStar Cebu and SunStar Superbalita

Villanueva bill is more specific and wider in scope. With its flaws though, it’s a good thing the Senate committee on public Information and mass media is reviewing it

Confusion over a new fake news law was partly set off by a Sept. 1 story in “Philippine Star,” which reported that President Duterte already signed the Senate bill filed by Joel Villanueva.

A fact-check by Vera Files posted Sept. 2 said that what Duterte enacted into law was Republic Act 10591 which adjusted fines for 199 crimes in the Revised Penal Code, including the crime of publishing false news. (Sen. Franklin Drilon, author of the new law, said the increase in fines had nothing to do with the rise in incidents of fake news.)

False news under the existing law is not the same fake news that the Villanueva bill (Senate Bill #1492) seeks to outlaw.

Law, bill compared

The “false news” that is deemed a crime under Art. 154, #1 of the Revised Penal Code refers only to “false news which may endanger the public order or cause damage to the interest or credit of the state.”

Villanuveva’s bill, in contrast, covers the act of circulating or spreading any “false news that causes or tends to cause panic, division, chaos, or violence and hate.” It’s more specific but wider and broader, not limited to injuring the interest of the state.

That bill, last time we heard, was still with the Senate committee on public information and mass media. Perhaps the senators could consider the reactions to the publicized original version of the bill. I cited at least four areas where a closer look by the senators is obviously needed.

Mistakes in free speech

The major concern among mainstream media practitioners is that the errors and omissions that newspapers and broadcast stations are prone to commit in the rush of deadline might be labeled fake news.

Anyone who wishes to harass a journalist and his news outlet may exploit the apparent vagueness of the definition of fake news under the bill.

What is fake news? That is not clearly defined in the Villanueva bill, focusing only on adverse effect or tendency to cause adverse effect. It opens Itself to such a broad interpretation as to cover any factual error of media. It should be explicit on the requirement of malice and the benefit of privileged communication that protect journalists under the libel law.

The fake news bill is needed but it should not be one that would stifle media in reporting and commenting on the news or, as Inquirer columnist Oscar Franklin Tan noted in a Sept. 2 column, would punish mistakes inherent in free speech. (Tan, commenting on penalizing fake news, was himself misled that the Villanueva bill was already signed into law.)

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