Justice secretary orders NBI to investigate nCoV 'fake news'

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 04 2020 09:33 PM | Updated as of Feb 05 2020 07:56 PM

MANILA – The Department of Justice (DOJ) has ordered the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to probe and file charges if needed against those who spread fake news about the 2019 novel coronavirus acute respiratory disease (2019-nCoV ARD).

In an order Tuesday, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra directed NBI Director Dante Gierran to investigate and conduct case build-up on the “alleged deliberate spread of misinformation and fake news about the 2019-nCoV ARD and false reporting of 2019-nCoV cases.” 

Justice department spokesperson Usec. Markk Perete said the NBI will be tasked to determine what laws were violated and to file the appropriate charges.

But he refused to “speculate” what charges will be filed as it will depend on the evidence gathered during the investigation.
 
There is, at present, no law defining and punishing “fake news” in the Philippines.

Police on Sunday arrested a man in Legazpi City who feigned collapsing in a mall, pretending to be a victim of nCoV, but who later admitted it was just a prank for an online video. Albay Police filed a complaint for alarm and scandal against him on Tuesday.

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Despite the filing of the complaint, Perete said the NBI investigation will proceed independently since the prankster may have committed other crimes.

“An act may violate a number of laws and the violator may be prosecuted accordingly, taking into consideration of course the rules against double jeopardy (when and where they become applicable),” he said in a message exchange with reporters. 

Double jeopardy prohibits the trial of an accused for the same or similar charges following an acquittal or conviction.

Perete also said the NBI’s directive to investigate is “broad enough to encompass other cases of possible spread of misinformation related to the nCoV which may not have been the subject of the PNP complaint.”

The DOJ order came after an emergency meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte and Cabinet officials in Malacañang on Monday and a Senate probe on Tuesday into the Philippine government’s response to the virus, which some netizens have criticized for lack of transparency and for being slow.

Asked what prompted the directive, Perete said there is a need to ensure public order and safety, especially in times when there are “circumstances that agitate the public.”

More than 400 persons have died from nCoV, including a 44-year-old Chinese man visiting the Philippines who died due to severe pneumonia in a government hospital in Manila last Saturday. 

There is so far only one other confirmed nCoV case in the Philippines—that of a 38-year-old female companion of the Chinese tourist who died. She was declared the first case of nCoV in the country.

Health authorities have repeatedly warned the public not to believe unconfirmed reports about the presence of other supposed nCoV cases.

“Persons who unnecessarily aggravate such agitation through actions violative of our laws cannot be allowed to unjustly claim protection under the basic guarantees of the Constitution,” he said, fielding questions from reporters about the possible effect of the directive on freedom of speech and of expression.

FREEDOM OF SPEECH

A 2008 case, Chavez vs. Gonzales, struck down as a form of prior restraint the statement of then-Justice Secretary Raul Gonzales and a press release from the National Telecommunications Commission warning radio and broadcast media that the airing of “Hello Garci” tapes will result in the cancellation of their certificates of authority.

The Hello Garci tapes supposedly showed then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo instructing a Comelec official to rig the 2004 polls.

The Supreme Court said the warning regulated the content of the speech and prior restraint could only be justified if there is a clear and present danger sought to be avoided.

Perete clarified the DOJ directive does not violate freedom of speech and of the press.

“To clarify, the DO [Department Order] issued by the Secretary does not impose any prior restraint on speech or expression. Neither does it restrict any action,” he explained.

“It merely directs the NBI to investigate certain acts already committed, and if warranted, to file the appropriate complaint before the proper body,” he added.