2 journalists, 17 others face charges for alleged coronavirus ‘fake news’

CMFR/PHILIPPINES — Two journalists in the province of Cavite are facing the possibility of two months imprisonment and a fine of up to PHP1 million pesos ($19,706.72) as a result of charges filed by the Philippine National Police Anti-Cybercrime Unit in Region IV-A on 28 March 2020.

Cavite is 26.73 miles south of Manila.

Latigo News TV website editor Mario Batuigas and online reporter Amor Virata are accused of spreading “false information on the COVID-19 crisis.” They are in violation of Section 6(6) of the “Bayanihan to Heal As One Act,” which President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law on 24 March, a day after its adoption by the Philippine Congress with the aim of addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a Philippine Daily Inquirer report, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) has summoned at least 17 other individuals on similar allegations. NBI Cybercrime Division chief Vic Lorenzo said they are looking to charge the “fake news” spreaders under Article 154 of the Revised Penal Code, pertaining to the “unlawful use of means of publication and unlawful utterances.”

Chel Diokno of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), who volunteered to be the defense lawyer of a netizen who was subpoenaed, assailed the NBI, noting that the document received by his client did not even cite the allegedly unlawful post but merely stated that the summoned person was being investigated for possible violation of Article 154. Diokno also maintained that his client’s social media activity was well within the latter’s rights as a Filipino citizen.

In a press statement, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called on Philippine prosecutors to abandon all proceedings against journalists under the new law that supposedly combats disinformation, but in fact “constitutes a grave violation of press freedom.”

“The article is supposed to penalize ‘false information’ but this is not a concept that exists in Philippine law, so it poses a major threat to the freedom to inform. During the coronavirus crisis, when information is especially crucial, the authorities must let journalists do their work, regardless of the kind of media they report for,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.