False info from gov't officials a 'threat to democratic values': ex-SolGen

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 04 2017 08:12 PM

MANILA—False information propagated by public officials poses a threat to democracy, former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay said Wednesday.

Constitutional law outlines the difference between claims or false information provided by ordinary citizens, and those peddled by public officials, calling the latter "government dishonesty," Hilbay said.

He added, it is worrisome for government to go on a "witch hunt to expose private speakers" because these citizens are too critical or even dishonest, as this would create a "chilling effect on freedom of expression."

"What I consider a threat to democratic values and a danger to a marketplace of ideas is the prevalence of false information provided by public officials, whether deliberately or out of sheer incompetence," he told lawmakers in a hearing of the committee on public information and mass media.

False information peddled by these officials is problematic because "they are paid with public funds" and their status "provides official imprimatur to false information, whether posted in private or in official social media accounts," Hilbay said.

He added that these officials' pubic employment, which gives them access to government facilities, creates a "semblance of credibility where otherwise there might not be any" and allows them wide distribution.

"Ordinarily, the mechanisms of government for responding to dishonesty by public officials are the disciplinary sanctions under the Civil Service Law, the Ombudsman, or by the heads of agencies, including the Office of the President. The problem is when these mechanisms are not triggered," he said.

Instances of dishonesty and incompetence were exposed by these constraints, Hilbay said, but were dismissed as "biased or unfair political attacks rather than efforts to promote honesty in government."

"Ordinary citizens therefore are confused by an environment where officials of the executive department in particular are able to disseminate false information while demonizing the press and activist citizens," he said.

"This is a structural problem of the information environment and a phenomenon where government disinformation is able to hide behind a mantle of official action and protection on one hand while freedom of speech and of the press are tagged as politically biased," he added.

Hilbay then enjoined lawmakers to create the Institute for the Integrity of Information, which will be tasked to "identify and publicize government dishonesty."

This agency will serve as an "ombudsman for public information provided by the government or an information police for government officials."

"When public officials become dishonest, it is the obligation of the state itself to correct distortion in the marketplace of ideas," he said.

Hilbay proposed that this body be formed by academics, media practitioners, policy-makers, scientists, information technology experts "of the highest credibility and competence" and who will not be appointed by the president or any of his alter-egos.

The Institute for the Integrity of Information, he suggested, should be able to act upon referral of citizens. 

Hilbay also envisions this body as being able to create standards for verifying information provided by government, publicize its findings, and reward citizens who are able to spot fake information provided by public officials.

"I encourage your honors to focus on a metaphor that we should recognize false information as a calamity that wreaks havoc on a sensitive ecosystem — the information environment or the marketplace of ideas," he said.

"In the same way that the government has spent resources in informing and warning citizens about impending or ongoing calamities through the PAGASA or Phivolcs, the government should likewise invest in informing and warning citizens about government dishonesty, which distorts the information environment, polarizes conversation, and manipulates citizens."

This Institute for the Integrity of Information is essential, Hilbay said, because the integrity of information disseminated is essential to opinion-formation and public discourse.

"If citizens think and act on the basis on wrong assertions of facts by public officials, then our marketplace of ideas will receive and produce wrong signals. The consequence of which is the impairment of the value of truth," Hilbay said.

"We live in an age of impunity and I fear that apart from the thousands of killings on our streets, a tragedy that has received global attention, we have also become witnesses to another form of impunity: the death of truth," he added.

Since there has been no similar institution anywhere in this world, the creation of such will not only be a local response to government dishonesty, but may also become a model legislation for all democracies "grappling with attacks on truth," Hilbay said.

Senator Grace Poe, chair of the committee, said although this suggestion may add another layer of democracy, which they are trying to avoid, it will be worth pursuing if it will encourage accountability among public officers.