In the aftermath of the hearing on “fake news” last week, I must say that this is the first time in my life that I have seen legislation being proposed to control media and our right to free expression.
First, the hearings main flaw was its inability to sufficiently define fake news. as it progressed, one after another so called expert came forward to accuse the bloggers present of misinformation, inaccuracy and deliberate lying- all meaning to ascribe fake news to them as though only they may be guilty of such. No definition.
If anything, they tried to frame it as a sin only bloggers RJ Nieto (Thinking Pinoy) and Mocha Uson can commit, despite the hearing being called for another character named Cocoy Dayao to testify on supposed statements being made against senators.
In sum, the Senators in the hearing failed to nail the composed Nieto and Mocha Uson. Instead, they overplayed a vindictive hand used to shame them, baselessly admonishing them that they are government personnel, they who must only speak in terms agreeable to them.
These two bloggers represent ordinary, imperfect people that most Filipinos are. Any slap at them is punch against the 13 million Filipinos connected to social media- individuals who regularly express themselves in facebook posts, tweets and blogs, all of whom take pride in what they say and are often sensitive about comments made against it.
Being able to generate responses and facilitate dialogue with their posts, social media influencers post information that can enable people to be more critical by allowing people to verify news they receive.
This enables greater participation in democracy since it allows people to react, and act on the information, rather than be passive digesters of data. This is precisely the reason why even online editions of mainstream news media have comments sections. While at first glance things seem chaotic, the truth is that people are no longer merely passive. More people are reacting, and participating as a result. More of their voices are heard.
That said, can we prevent Filipinos like government personnel from reacting to news?
As a proposal to supposedly address fake news which he believes emanates from government, former Solicitor general Florin Hilbay even came up with this rather hackneyed and short sighted idea for an information ombudsman for government personnel. Being undeveloped and vague, it can easily be interpreted as a censor that threatens fundamental freedoms and rights of expression held by government employees.
In particular, it discourages government employees from speaking out when we need them to. Will whistleblowers within government speaking about corruption and inefficiency, or testimony about things such as sexual harassment committed by officials, be labeled “fake news” and can be censored by the “police?” That can be a real effect of his proposal.
In case these are deemed dishonest or outright fabrications, falsifications and lies, then perhaps he can trigger the necessary cases against these erring government personnel in the proper fora. An information police is anathema to the idea of free speech and the press. It will not serve this purpose. Rather, it makes me wonder how an esteemed lawyer with a supposedly deep concern for human rights such as he could even think of such a proposal.
The online magazine Resurgent.ph provides a fitting epilogue to the hearing:
“The most disturbing takeaway from the hearing is the idea that only a select few have the right to be in media, and that the millions of bloggers and influencers all over the world have no right to speak. In a country where this constituency is growing rapidly, these LP senators have just earned their ire, and lost their vote.”