SB No. 1492: What is it about ‘road to Hell’ you don’t understand?

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I woke up a couple of days ago with this startling headline:

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LeniRobredo’s daughter arrested on drugs charge in the United States

At first, the news item seemed legit, having come at first glance from Fox News.

Still, something felt amiss. Gut-feel (and journalistic training) told me there’s something strange with the way the webpage was laid-out. It wasn’t even remotely similar to the official Fox News website.

In addition, while the website address (URL) said it was Fox News, the masthead found on the webpage said it was USA News. That alone should’ve raised a number of red flags.

The URL also seemed odd: My understanding of URLs is that websites cannot have two of exactly the same name. The internet is precise that way.

So, I checked the Fox News website and there it is: www. No hyphen, no ‘24’ in the address. In the telling of what is true and what is not, these minute details are important.

So on closer inspection, the headline, website, and story proved false.

Who’s to blame for this? Beats me. Suffice it that it can come from everywhere.

And really, that’s all one has to do before sharing any news item online: to look closer. Weigh the information. Check links, details, and dates if they belong to the said news outfit. If you have the know-how, you can go out of your way to check the source’s IP address.

Laziness and gullibility breed ignorance.

This, as well all know, is not the first. A string of other supposed “news sites” have been tagged as purveyors of fake news. In fact, even news agencies of traditional or mainstream standing weren’t spared the humiliation of being called out on account of a post or two of false information.

The Philippine News Agency (PNA), a government-run newsbureau, drew flak weeks ago for such a faux pas.

In a May 22, 2017 statement by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), the group said:

“PNA was quoting Interior and Local Government Assistant Secretary EpimacoDensing III, who said that 95 nations were convinced that there were no EJKs in the Philippines.

“However, Densing did not make such claim. What Densing said in the UPR was that they were ‘very confident’ that other countries were convinced by the presentation of the Philippines regarding the human rights situation in the country.”

Putting words in the mouth of government officials or sources of statements and posting this as ‘news’ are wrong on many levels. For one, these underhanded actions legitimizethe statements when the same are published, thereby giving a measure of authority tofalse claims.

The problem has become widespread, so much so that Sen. Joel Villanueva recently filed a bill—Senate Bill No. 1492, otherwise known as the Anti-Fake News Act of 2017—to combat the spread of fake news.

The Explanatory Note of the said bill says: “Indeed, the effect of fake news should not be taken lightly. Fake news creates impression and beliefs based on false premises leading to division, misunderstanding and further exacerbating otherwise tenuous relations.”

To a certain extent, I agree. The proliferation of fake news sows confusion, discord. If I weren’t too skeptical of conspiracy theories, I’d say fake news is the best strategy to divide and conquer an unsuspecting populace. Keep them in the thick of the debate, the arguments.

To prevent unrest, the ongoing arguments offerthe people a chance to let off some steam online. It’s a chance to hurl excrement on each other’s faces while the unscrupulous run off with our millions. Fake news buys the time they need for the heist.

But that’s me, ever themisanthropist.

Reading through the document, however, I noticed one thing: the most critical of all prerequisites seem to be absent: a clear-cut, detailed and comprehensive definition of ‘fake news’.

The closest to a definition the bill offers is this: “To be covered under this Act, such false news or information must cause or tend to cause panic, division, chaos, violence, hate or must exhibit or tend to exhibit a propaganda to blacken or discredit one’s reputation. In addition, the person doing any of the foregoing acts must have full knowledge that such news or information is false, or have reasonable grounds to believe that the same is false.”

The document explains fake news’ consequences e.g. chaos, violence, hate, while completely disregarding its definition. Without a definitive classification, the term ‘fake news’ will now be open to speculation.

Who’s to say what is fake and what is not? With government officials in the habit of lying through their teeth, this can put everyone, not only journalists, in jeopardy.

It’s bad enough that good journalists—mere messengers of news—are drawing flak from government officials and netizens for stories that are said to be “false”.

One clear instance is the statement made by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) months back that the country has 4.7 million drug users. This ‘retelling’ came about after Pres. Rodrigo Duterte made the same claim.

The PDEA statistics stood at loggerheads with the figures supplied by the Dangerous Drugs Board through a nationwide survey, which pegged the number at 1.8 million.

Now, should the writing and publishing of contradictory statements by government officials constitute ‘fake’ news?

Any journalist with a bit of experience knows that in the work of gathering of information, mistakes happen to the best of us. Should we consider honest errors fake news?

The harder question to answer is this: what if the President himself, or a member of Congress or the Senate, or the High Court, is a purveyor of alternative truths?

SB No. 1492 says: “If the offender is a public official, he shall be liable for twice the amount of the fine imposed above, and be imprisoned for two times longer than the period provided herein. In addition, he shall also suffer the accessory penalty of absolute perpetual disqualification from holding any public office.”

This provision alone should put a stop to the likes of Presidential Communications chief Martin Andanarwhen he accused journalists who covered the press conference of self-confessed Davao Death Squad (DDS) member Arthur Lascañas of bribery, or PCOO assistant secretary Mocha Uson from sharing a wrong photo through the PNA news site.

But will the Anti-Fake News Act of 2017 have enough teeth to take a bite out of such people, people who enjoy the President’s unquestioning trust?

If anything, SB 1492 could be used to curb dissent among legitimate journalists, writers, and netizens in general by wrongfully accusing them of beingcounterfeits.

Should SB 1492 pass into law without a comprehensive definition of what constitutes fake news, then the public will face a bigger problem than what fake news could ever accomplish, and that’s the cutting back of our freedom of expression.

How? By regulating the media. What better excuse to regulate the press than to force each newspaper, radio and TV station, or news website to register as proof of legitimacy?

While I am 100% for intelligent journalism or the responsible posting or reposting of news items on social media, alternative truths are to be expected. It’s not a new thing, neither does it have absolute power over consumers of news. Once or twice, perhaps, but as the axiom goes, you cannot fool all the people all the time.

Of the 1987 Philippine Constitution, it is said:

Article III, Section 4: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”

Article III, Section 7: “The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized. Access to official records, and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.”

As for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, they declare respectively that:

Article 19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Article 19 (2) “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”

What we need is vigilance, to ‘grow up’ learning the information and social media ropes, and not to be dragged into foolhardy actions of certain political groups and individuals.

Because in the end, the real responsibility lies in the hands of consumers of news.

Fake news has no chance of spreading among those who know how to look closer, to think things through.

Besides, it’s wrong to call alternative truths ‘fake news,’ in my opinion, as though fraud lies within the province of journalism.

Let’s call a spade a spade. If the information is deliberately false, then it’s not news. It’s a downright lie.

2017  ©  Joel Pablo Salud

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