MANILA—A New York-based human rights group slammed the proposed law of Senate President Vicente Sotto III, which seeks to punish publishing “false content,” saying it would stifle free speech.
Sotto filed Senate Bill No. 9, which also allows the justice department to take down any online post deemed “false.”
Passing such a law would “open the door for the government to wantonly clamp down on critical opinions or information not only in the Philippines, but around the globe,” Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal advisor at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a statement.
“The bill should immediately be withdrawn and revised to meet international free expression standards.”
Lakhdhir also warned that the bill poses risks for activists, journalists, academics and ordinary people expressing their views on the internet.
“By proposing this heavy-handed regulation, the Philippine government threatens both internet freedom and the free exchange of ideas that lies at the heart of the democratic process,” Lakhdhir said.
Under the bill, anyone found guilty of knowingly creating or publishing false information shall be punished with imprisonment, a fine of not more than P300,000, or both.
Persons found guilty of using a fictitious online account or website in creating or publishing false information, meanwhile, could face imprisonment and/or a fine of not more than P500,000, or both.
Those who offered their services or expertise to create or publish false information could also be imprisoned, fined or both.
HRW noted the Philippines ratified in 1986 the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that governments could only impose restrictions on freedom of speech if those restrictions are provided by law and necessary for the protection of national security, public order, public health or morals, or the rights of others.
It said Sotto’s proposed bill “falls far short of these standards” because it does not only fail to require that the “misleading” information cause real harm to a legitimate interest, it also does not clearly define what kind of content is prohibited.
It said this would chill the discussion of controversial subjects out of fear of prosecution.
The previous Congress tackled the proliferation of “fake news” in the country. However, it failed to pass any measure that would curb misinformation.
Sen. Grace Poe, then the chair of the committee on public information and mass media, said in one of the discussions on the matter that congress “cannot legislate thought control.”
The public information committee is now headed by Sen. Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr., who has expressed support for Sotto’s bill.