By Pachico A. Seares
Public & Standards Editor
SunStar Cebu and SunStar Superbalita
Lack of definition in pending Senate bill and corrupted use of the phrase by politicians endanger factual and honest publishing and may disable useful discussion on any issue of national or community interest.
The existing law on “false news,” under Art. 154 of the Revised Penal Code does not define it. Publishing false news is punishable if it “may endanger the public order or cause damage to the interest or credit of the State.” Nothing about what “false news” is.
Senate Bill 1492, filed last July 21 by Sen. Joel Villanueva, like the penal code provision, merely describes the potential harm of false/fake news: (1) if it tends“to cause panic, division, chaos, violence or hate” or (2) if it “exhibits or tends to exhibit propaganda to blacken or discredit the reputation of a person…”
Both focus on the result, actual or potential, not on the nature or substance of fake news.
It creates a serious problem to traditional media that commits mistakes in the heat of deadline. Would such errors be deemed false/fake news? The requirement of “malice” won’t avert the rush to litigation against journalists.
Thus, the need to define “false or fake news.” The penal provision (Art. 154) on “false news” hasn’t been challenged in court. (Has anyone ever been sued under the
said law?) And the pending bill in the Senate suffers from a similar affliction: it doesn’t tell us what false/fake news is. With the rash use of the phrase lately, it’s more likely to figure in lawsuits.
There’s another compelling reason to define false/fake news. The term has been bastardized in public conversation and debate, largely because of its intentionally wrongful use by high-profile figures such as U.S. President Trump.
There’s the danger that public usage would eventually adopt the Trump meaning: any news that casts him in bad light, is unflattering, or he doesn’t like is fake news.
That would confuse or disable conversation on any serious dispute of national or community interest, create distrust in traditional media that seeks to report on events and issues, and produce ill-informed citizens who shun facts for lies.
Defining fake/false news must distinguish:
— Story A, a legitimate news story that may err despite standards and processes of journalism applied to its reporting and editing, from…
— Story B, where the error is deliberate and malicious, the lie is devious, and there’s no regard for the truth, usually for personal profit or political gain.
The existing law and the would-be law don’t address the distinction. Work of an authentic news organization, which holds itself accountable to its public, is as vulnerable to prosecution as that of an anonymous publisher or blogger who spreads falsehood to drive web traffic and generate revenue or wage a campaign of hate and vilification.
The genuinely good intention of regular media is lumped with the devilish pursuit of mostly anonymous and unidentifiable publishers.
The great danger is for enemies of traditional media, particularly those hurt by its real news, (1) to use the distortion of the meaning of “fake news” against it and
(2) to harass it with lawsuits for mistakes committed in the course of publication.
The first is being done now by public officials like Trump who deflects any adverse story by labeling it fake news even as he latches on to the lie despite the fact waved in his face.
The second will be done by those offended by traditional media. The fake news bill, if passed despite its flaws, will become another weapon in their arsenal.
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