Saying it threatens the constitutional rights of Filipinos to free expression and access to information, a multi-sectoral group of digital rights advocates is demanding the repeal of Section 6 of Republic Act No. 11469 or the “Bayanihan To Heal As One Act”.
Approved on March 25, the law penalizes “fake news” or disinformation under Section 6 (f), which reads:
“Individuals or groups creating, perpetrating, or spreading false information regarding the Covid-19 crisis on social media and other platforms, such information having no valid or beneficial effect on the population, and are clearly geared to promote chaos, panic, anarchy, fear, or confusion; and those participating in cyber incidents that make use or take advantage of the current crisis situation to prey on the public through scams, phishing, fraudulent emails, or other similar acts.”
The coalition led by civil society group Foundation for Media Alternatives said that while the provision appears to address the long-standing concern of journalists and activists over false information, it can also be used to curtail free speech, especially pieces of information that are critical of the government.
“Given its specific context and current form, Section 6 can be just as detrimental to democracy and human rights,” the group said in a statement on Tuesday, April 1.
The advocates pointed out that the term “false information” is not defined in any existing law, which means that its determination is left to the whims of law enforcers. The provision, they added, does not distinguish between those who passively “like”, share, comment and those who deliberately generate false content or actively discuss pieces of information that are deemed false.
The group said the Covid-19 pandemic has global and local political ramifications, which require scrutiny and vigilance.
“Like any disaster, it shakes up systems in ways that expose the good and the bad. Good practices including consultative planning, innovative thinking, and collaborative approaches continue to shine through amidst the double standards, nepotism, corruption, censorship and red tape imposed by many government offices and public officials,” it stressed.
The advocates noted that the last two weeks saw abuses perpetrated by public officials such as in Cebu where the governor made a rapper promise before the public that he would never swear at and criticize the government’s response to Covid-19 in social media.
“During patrols, we have seen barangay officials and police apprehend curfew violators and penalize them by exposing them under the sun for hours, placing a child in a coffin and detaining teens in a dog cage. This, on top of the Duterte administration’s military rather than a public health approach to the pandemic,” the coalition said.
On the contrary, free speech has been instrumental in organizing over social media for relief efforts, particularly during the lockdown of Luzon and other places, according to the group.
“Individuals and groups were able to pool together resources and support health and other essential workers. Public outrage exposed the unnecessary use of the limited Covid-19 testing kits by asymptomatic politicians and prevented the unfair sacking of health officials who opposed this VIP treatment,” it observed.
“It also forced the Department of Health (DOH) to go back to the drawing board after it announced the measly allowance for volunteer health workers. It also exposed incidents of gender-based violence in certain checkpoints.”
The civil society alliance said since courts are closed during the lockdown, it is unlikely that those accused of violating Section 6 will have access to legal remedies. “This will further congest detention centers and eventually the dockets. More importantly, it will likely target the more critical voices, especially among those who have no political clout,” the statement read.
urge the government to repeal Section 6, particularly its provision on false
information and instead use its resources to generate, curate and disseminate
critical pieces of information to the public and specific constituents towards
addressing Covid-19 and supporting the needs of those most rendered vulnerable.
We have seen creative examples of these which, when practiced more widely, can
benefit more communities,” it added.