Human Rights Watch slams Sotto’s fake news bill

Lian Buan

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Human Rights Watch slams Sotto’s fake news bill
The punishable acts will still be liable under the current Cybercrime Law, but the meat of the measure are the added powers of the Department of Justice

MANILA, Philippines – International group Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Friday, July 26, called for opposition against Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III’s anti-false content bill or fake news bill, which would empower the justice department to issue takedown orders of articles and other content.

“The Philippines ‘false content’ bill, if passed, would make a government department the arbiter of permissible online material,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal advisor for Human Rights Watch.

Sotto, who previously succeeded in compelling to take down articles on the rape case of sexy actress Pepsi Paloma, filed Senate Bill No. 9 or the fake news bill.

The bill proposed to punish anyone who publishes online content “knowing or having a reasonable belief that it contains information that is false or that would tend to mislead the public.” The punishable acts will still be liable under the current Cybercrime Law, but the meat of the measure are the added powers of the Department of Justice (DOJ).

“It does not specify how such ‘reasonable belief’ can be proven, whether the ‘false’ information needs to be material, or how a court is to determine that content ‘could mislead’ the public,” the HRW pointed out.

DOJ powers 

Under the bill, the DOJ Cybercrime Office is empowered to issue a rectification order, a takedown order and a block access order for online content it deemed to be false.

The bill even adds that there need not be a complainant when the content is a public issue. 

“In matters affecting the public interest, the same office shall issue motu proprio the appropriate order. The remedies provided herein are cumulative and the issuance of one shall not preclude or waive the right to use any or all other remedies,” the bill said.

HRW pointed out that the broadness of the bill is dangerous as “public interest is broadly defined as national security, public health, public safety, public order, public confidence in the government, and the Philippines’ international relations.”

The bill allows for an appeal from the online publisher, which shall also be decided by the justice secretary.

“The law does not provide for judicial review of correction, takedown, or blocking orders. Instead, the only remedy available would be to petition the Office of the Secretary of the Justice Department – the very department that issued the order,” HRW said.

The group said the bill violates the  International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the Philippines ratified in 1986, which says “governments may 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.”

“The proposed ‘false content’ law poses real risks for activists, journalists, academics, and ordinary people expressing their views on the internet,” Lakhdhir added. – 

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.