Seares: Rumor-mongering law can’t be used against fake news. The law is dead.

Pachico A. Seares

ONE Jewel Louie Aviso posted on Facebook Tuesday, Feb. 4, that patients infected with coronavirus were confined at the Talisay City, Cebu District Hospital, several died and he was warning people not to go to the hospital.

None of it was true. Aviso admitted the “news” was entirely false and apologized for having pulled the perverse prank. Talisay City Mayor Samsam Gullas decried the spreading of falsehood and promised to prosecute the violator. The news story reporting Gullas’s reaction said Aviso would be charged with violation of Presidential Decree 90, which made it a crime to spread rumor or false information.

PNP vs. false news

Item two: On Wednesday, Feb. 5, the Philippine National Police (PNP) announced it would join the campaign against false information about the virus that has already killed 563 people in China, is still not stopped, and continues to threaten other countries, including the Philippines.

Police said they will file at least two criminal charges against any netizen spreading fake news about the 2019 novel coronavirus and the illness associated with acute respiratory syndrome. The charges, a spokesman said: (a) PD 90 or the rumor-mongering law of 1973 and (b) the Revised Penal Code provision (Art. 154) punishing publication of false news and unlawful utterances.

Fakery in Danao

Item three: A student named Brigs Granada Alvaro in early December 2019 posted on Facebook the false report that a group of men tried to snatch him, setting off a kidnapping scare among Danao City residents.

Police said they would charge him with alarm and scandal under the Penal Code in relation to the Anti-Cybercrime Law. Maybe not the correct charge since spreading false news is not alarm and scandal under the Penal Code. But Cebu City Mayor Edgar Labella suggested, you guessed it, PD 90.

No longer a crime

They would use the rumor-mongering law. There is a problem: The law is dead, unless it was resurrected under a new name.

It was pronounced dead on Nov. 21, 1986 when then President Corazon Aquino formally repealed PD 90, the rumor-mongering law, and Letter of Instructions 50, which implemented it. She issued Executive Order 65, series of 1986, which officially killed it.

Apparently it did not. Some people, including public officials such as PNP top brass and mayors, must still think it is alive and well and can still be used to prosecute purveyors of falsehood.

The rumor-mongering law, like an ugly rumor, is among the remnants of martial law that have survived more than 33 years since it was repealed. Maybe it is part of the baggage of a nation that loves to declare “never to forget.”

Marcos, Cory intent

Then President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. issued the decree purportedly to stop the acts that were “insidious means of disrupting peace and order” in the country. Actually, they were used to curb dissent and suppress flow of information.

Oddly now, it is being seen as useful to the authorities who want to stop fake news. That doesn’t necessarily make Marcos right and Cory Aquino wrong. Marcos saw PD 90 as means to his authoritarian end. Cory saw it as a Marcos instrument to stifle dissent, a trapping of martial law that must be struck down and removed.

Apparently she did not succeed completely. That somehow attested to its usefulness, if only the law were used rightly and justly.

Need for new law

The bills proposing to criminalize circulation of false news have remained un-passed, despite the number of hearings that both chambers of Congress held. Apparently, those hearings showed that people, including legislators, are wary about restricting the flow of information and impinging on free speech and free press. That must explain why the bills are still stalled.

The law that PNP threatened to use, Art. 154 of the Penal Code--which the police spokesman mentioned along with the deceased rumor-mongering law--punishes “false news.” Its loophole is the phrase qualifying the false news, namely: “Which may endanger the public order or cause damage to the interest or credit of the State.” It does not cover situations where the fake news will not and does not threaten public order or cause damage and may just be a harmless prank.

Congress may have to pass a law that adequately meets altered conditions in behavior and technology of pranksters and criminals who peddle false information.