Media's Public

Villafuerte’s House bill on fake news oppressive

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

HB #6622 removes absence of malice as a media outlet’s defense, every false news is punishable regardless of lack of knowledge or intent. Worse, the penalties include shutdown of the newspaper, broadcast station or website.

Journalists’ eyes have been focused on Senate Bill #1492 filed by Sen. Joel Villanueva, drawn by committee hearings where PCOO Asst. Secretary Mocha Uson and other “famous” bloggers who allegedly peddle fake news testified.

Few have looked at House bill #6622 filed by Camarines Sur Rep. Luis Raymund “LRay” Villafuerte Jr.

Both bills seek to penalize fake news. The Senate bill is “an act to penalize malicious distribution of false news and other related violation.” The House bill is labeled “Anti-Fake News Act of 2017,” “an act prohibiting creation and distribution of fake news.”

What HB #6622 punishes

If SB #1492 scares some journalists because it might be used to harass them, HB #6622 tells them outright how they could be scared.

Villafuerte’s bill:

■ would punish the media outlet creating or disseminating fake news, “whether or not such mass media outlet knows of
its falsity, regardless of intent.”
■ would include as penalty the shutdown of the media outlet, from one week to a month, in addition to the penalty of
fines from P300,000 to P1 million and/or imprisonment of one year to six years.

The House version requires malice only for “mass media and social media users”: “deliberately or maliciously.” (“Social media user” is defined in the bill but not “mass media user.” The latter must be the media consumer who uses mainstream media to create or distribute fake news.) Under HB #6622, malice is not required for media outlets: lack of knowledge or intent is not a defense.

Absence of malice

Is Villafuerte thinking to penalize false news as a crime “per se,” regardless of knowledge or intent?

It would be more oppressive than libel, in which malice is only presumed but taken down once the sued journalist shows the communication is privileged, especially when the aggrieved person is a public person. In libel, actual malice has to be proved after the initial presumption is refuted.

Absence of malice, a linchpin in free press, would be removed as defense. You create or spread false news? You’re guilty. Knowledge or intent does not matter.

Closure as penalty

The other horror comes from the penalty. HB 6622 slaps smaller fine: from P300,000 to P1 million, compared to SB #1491’s P10 million to P20 million. And shorter jail term: one month to six years (arresto menor to prision correccional), compared SB #1491’s 10 years to 20 years. But the House version carries the penalty of shutting down operations of the media outlet from one week to one month.

The penalty was unheard of before, except in dictatorships. That and couldn’t have been contemplated by Constitution framers in protecting free speech and free press.

Jailing an offending journalist is restrictive enough. Closing down the paper or broadcast station or its website stabs at the heart of press freedom.

Other sticky points

There are a few areas in HB #6622 that are:
— confusing (is the journalist free from liability, only his media outlet is liable, unless he is also a “media
— fuzzy and unclear in definition (mistakes in reporting or editing are fake news?).
— repressive (penalty of fine or jail term if the media Outlet won’t retract?).

But those things, especially the matter of defining fake news, requires another conversation.

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