Government News Analysis Reforms

Kill the Bill

Philippine Senator Joel Villanueva's bill “An Act Penalizing the Malicious Distribution of False News and Other Related Violations,”
Philippine Senator Joel Villanueva's bill “An Act Penalizing the Malicious Distribution of False News and Other Related Violations,”

We can’t ignore the irony of Senator Joel Villanueva (photo) calling for anti-fake news legislation. Villanueva, chairman of the Citizens’ Battle Against Corruption (CIBAC) party – you might want to read that again – is presently awaiting a possible trial date for his alleged participation in the notorious PHP10 billion Pork Barrel rip-off that rocked the Philippines in 2013.

In August 2015, he was charged with graft; he’s alleged to have misappropriated PHP2.33 million worth of public funds while he was a CIBAC partly-list member of the House of Representatives in 2008. His defence? ‘Fake signatures’ He claims – as others have before him – that he was set up; someone forged his autograph on a number of transaction documents.

Villanueva, a close friend of former president, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, in whose administration he served as director-general of the Technical Education Skills and Development Authority – a Cabinet post – is alleged to have routed his pork to ‘ghost projects” through dummy NGOs and front companies.

Now, while that case awaits its fate – the son of Jesus Is Lord Church founder, Eddie Villanueva, will be among the third batch to be tried in connection with the Priority Development Assistance Fund scandal if the prosecution goes ahead – Senator Villanueva is pushing hard to get his Bill into law.

Regaling under the long-winded title, “An Act Penalizing the Malicious Distribution of False News and Other Related Violations,” the proposed legislation seeks to impose swingeing penalties on those found guilty of such offences with fines of up to PHP5 million and five years imprisonment. And that’s just for ordinary citizens – public officials found guilty could have those penalties doubled and be barred for life from holding public office.

Additionally, media and social-media outlets which fail to remove content deemed to be false – by whom remains unclear, though – could face fines of up to PHP20 million and jail terms of as much as 20 years. What also remains unclear is how Villanueva foresees social media being policed – and at what cost.

A public official can steal from the public purse, get a presidential pardon and go on to run for the highest offices in the land.
Globally, every minute of every day, there are 701,389 Facebook logins; 150 million emails sent out, 347,222 Twitter tweets tweeted; 20.8 million WhatsApp messages released etc. etc. Meanwhile, there are 60 million Filipinos with access to the Internet spending on average nine hours online each day – the highest rate in the world; as is the time they remain engaged on social media, which is four hours and 17 minutes daily.

To effectively monitor – and presumably, cleanse – all that would take an army; it would need battalions of Net police. Unless the goal was a little more modest; if for example the aim became simply to infuse propaganda and manipulate online public opinion. That could be done for much cheaper.

We’re certainly no fan of the Bill – it’s flawed even in its basic concept; it would be impossible to implement and, above all, rather than addressing the problem it would provide licence for even greater abuse. In our opinion if this Bill get’s through its first reading it would be a travesty of the legislative vetting process.

We do, however, like the idea of public officials being held to higher account than the people who elect them – in most democracies, after all, that’s de rigueur. As is banning those found guilty of corruption from holding any future public office. In the Philippines, this rarely applies. A public official, for example, can steal from the public purse, get a presidential pardon – ‘executive clemency’ as it’s sometimes known – and go on to run for the highest offices in the land.

In 2010, for instance, Aquino granted an amnesty to, among others, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV who’d staged two coup attempts (in 2003 and 2007) to unseat a sitting president. We can’t think of a much higher crime than that.

However, he’d been allowed to campaign for a Senate seat while he was still in prison – which he won – and go on run as an Independent candidate for the vice presidency of the Philippines in 2016, which he lost after only managing to garner 2.1% of the national vote.

Philippine politics is littered with such examples. It doesn’t seem to matter how outrageous the offence, if a president – for whatever reason – decides to wipe the slate clean, offenders can return to ‘politics as usual’. And the public, apparently, can’t do diddly-squat about it.

‘Fake’ could be interpreted for the pure purpose of censorship – a gift for any government seeking to control dissent
In our opinion, preventing convicted officials from standing for pubic office is about all that could be salvaged from Villanueva’s Senate Bill 1492. The rest isn’t worth the oxygen required to discuss it.

First of all, what is ‘fake news’? For Villanueva it seems to be any matter that’s intended to cause panic, division, chaos, violence or hate, or which promotes propaganda to defame someone’s reputation.

The latter point is more than covered by Article 353 of the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines – a pretty tough defamation provision which doesn’t require supplementing by additional legislation. Meanwhile, Villanueva’s other concerns are covered by everything from the Sedition Act to any amount of anti-discrimination statutes.

But, of course, such cases would have to be proved and views of what constitutes ‘fake news’ are subjective, while proving ‘intention’ is a can of worms all of its own. Furthermore, ‘fake’ could be interpreted for the pure purpose of censorship – a gift for any government seeking to control dissent, which is why no such ludicrous law exists in any democracy anywhere.

Censorship of this order has only ever existed in totalitarian states – the draconian press laws which controlled freedom of expression with an iron fist in the former Marxist-Leninist Soviet Union; the German Student Union’s “Action Against the Un-German Spirit” which in 1933 heralded-in an era of unprecedented state censorship with the burning of more than 25,000 works of “Un-German” books.

We never cease to marvel at the lack of intellectual acumen and basic common sense that propel laws such as this one.
Those regimes, however, never made any pretence about their purpose. They weren’t trying to protect the populous from ‘fake news’ as Villanueva likes to present his initiative. For that sort of ‘righteous censorship’ – if it can be called that – you’d have to look back to the book bans put in place by the Holy Roman Catholic Church, where ecclesiastical authority was used to the full to approve and control what people read.

The fact is this Bill, if enacted, would increase the potential for abuse exponentially – it could be used as a self-serving tool of government or political parties to censor and sanitise content, silence public expression and confiscate the hard-won freedom of the press at a stroke. For us, that’s enough to consign it to the trash even before it gets a reading.

We never cease to marvel at the lack of intellectual acumen and basic common sense that propel laws such as this one. Shouldn’t prospective legislators be required to sit a basic IQ test before they can become lawmakers? There’s an idea for a Senate Bill.

We find it extremely worrying that an elected legislator would even suggest such a proposal. And so we have to wonder why. This is hardly a vote getter – try and pass something like that in today’s Philippines and you’ll see demonstrations on the streets like you’ve never seen.

Filipinos are very protective of their freedoms; they’re not going to be standing by while a member of the political elite attempts to sequester those freedoms from right under their noses. They’re also not going to look kindly on any individual or institution that would deploy Big Brother to watch over them online.

Could it possibly be that Villanueva is seeking to raise a controversy that will overshadow his possible upcoming trial? A sort of distraction strategy that will take the focus off how a high-profile ‘anti-corruption’ congressman finds himself in the dock on alleged-corruption changes, by launching a contentious campaign to address the ills of social media.

Just so he’s clear, that’s not ‘fake news’, that’s us positing a possible explanation for his tabling of this extraordinary Bill. No doubt, he’d claim it to be false news – which illustrates just how impossibly flawed his proposed legislation is.

Villanueva  reportedly said: “The effect of fake news should not be taken lightly. Fake news creates impressions and beliefs based on false premises leading to division, misunderstanding and further exacerbating otherwise strenuous relations”.

If Villanueva’s caprice is taken seriously, then press freedom in the Philippines will enter a dystopian age.
The problem with that statement is that it’s no less true if you remove the words “fake” and “false”. Thus: “The effect of news should not be taken lightly. News creates impressions and beliefs based on premises leading to division, misunderstanding and further exacerbating otherwise strenuous relations”.

In short, it’s the nature of the beast. Rather than handle the beast, however, what Villanueva’s proposing is to slay it. Propaganda and misinformation in the media have been around since Gutenberg invented the printing press; all that’s changed is that it’s now being disbursed through a new medium; the Internet. In other words, the traditional print media no longer have a monopoly on it.

At the risk of sounding overly optimistic, we believe Villanueva’s bill will quickly bite the dust; that sanity and rational argument will prevail. If it doesn’t and Villanueva’s caprice is taken seriously, then press freedom in the Philippines will enter a dystopian age.

Even more tragically, the people’s freedom to express their feelings on issues that affect their lives will have been stolen from them in a cynical attempt to control thought under the guise of protecting “truth”. Kill the bill.

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