DOJ threatens to sue peddlers of coronavirus 'fake news'

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 05 2020 02:51 PM

A man uses a thermal scanner on people entering a college school building in Manila, Feb. 03, 2020. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

MANILA - Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Wednesday stood by his earlier directive ordering the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to investigate peddlers of "fake news" about the 2019 Novel Coronavirus acute respiratory disease (2019-nCoV ARD).

In a message to reporters, Guevarra said crimes under the Revised Penal Code in relation to the Cybercrime Prevention Act may be filed against those responsible.

‪"If the intent in causing the publication of false information is to create or aggravate public disorder, or undermine government efforts during a state of public emergency, and such publication is effected by means of information technology, appropriate charges under the Revised Penal Code in relation to the Cybercrime Prevention Law may be filed against perpetrators," he said.

No Philippine law, however, defines or punishes "fake news." 

Asked for guidelines on how to determine "fake news," Guevarra said he would leave it to the cybercrime experts of the DOJ and the NBI.

"The DOJ and the NBI have their own cybercrime experts. I suppose they’ll scope the field muna and see if there’s a malicious scheme or pattern somewhere," he said.

GUEVARRA: PROBE MY IDEA

Guevarra insisted investigating peddlers of "fake news" about the new coronavirus was his idea.

"I have personally observed a slew of internet/social media communications that tend to sow panic and confusion regarding this public health issue, and it was also raised during the Senate hearing yesterday. Malacañang had nothing to do with it," he said.

He added: "There are limitations to this constitutional right, including the greater interest of the public."

The Supreme Court had previously struck down the government's attempt to prevent the airing of "Hello Garci" tapes, which purportedly showed then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo instructing a Comelec official to rig the 2004 polls.

In the 2008 case of Chavez vs. Gonzales, the high court considered a form of prior restraint the statement of then-Justice Secretary Raul Gonzales and a press release from the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) warning radio and broadcast media that the airing of “Hello Garci” tapes will result in the cancellation of their certificates of authority.
 
SC said the warning regulated the content of the speech and prior restraint could only be justified if there was a clear and present danger sought to be avoided.

Guevarra said the clear and present danger the government seeks to avoid in this case is "causing undue panic and alarm in part, but also undermining government efforts for a unified and coordinated approach to a common threat that affects us all."

"The nCoV threat is a very serious public concern and no distraction of government efforts to overcome it will be tolerated," he said.