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NBI to go after peddlers of coronavirus fake news

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Tuesday, February 4, ordered the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to go after peddlers of fake news involving the 2019 novel coronavirus or the 2019-nCoV.

"The NBI, through Director Dante A. Gierran, is hereby directed and granted authority to conduct an investigation and case build-up on the alleged deliberate spread of misinformation and fake news about the 2019-nCov ARD and false reporting of 2019-nCov ARD (Acute Respiratory Disease) cases and, if evidence warrants, to file the appropriate charges against persons found responsible thereof," Guevarra said in Department Order No. 052 signed on Tuesday.

But what law covers fake news, if there is no law that defines and punishes it?

As of posting, Department of Justice (DOJ) Spokesperson Undersecretary Markk Perete was unable to name a specific law that can potentially cover fake news in the context of the 2019-nCov. 

"We cannot, at this point, speculate on the charge/s as these will depend on the evidence gathered during the investigation process," said Perete.

"Laws exist to ensure, among others, public order and safety. Upholding such laws becomes even more important when circumstances that agitate the public emerge," Perete added.

The anti-fake news bill, introduced by Senate President Vicente "Tito" Sotto III, will empower the DOJ to take down websites it deems to contain fake news. The Human Rights Watch has slammed this bill for infringing on the right to free speech.

Sotto himself peddled fake news on Tuesday when he showed at a Senate hearing a video of 2019-nCov conspiracy theories, which Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr dismissed as the "craziest video."

Will Sotto be investigated too?

"All leads will have to be considered, including those presented at the Senate," Perete said.

Free speech

The Legazpi City police filed on Tuesday a complaint for alarm and scandal against a vlogger who pulled a prank by laying down and acting sick in front of Yashano Mall in the city's port district on Sunday afternoon.

Will the right to free speech protect people in this case?

"Persons who unnecessarily aggravate such agitation through actions violative of our laws cannot be allowed to unjustly claim protection under the basic guarantees of our Constitution. To hold otherwise will invite chaos and disorder," said Perete.

Law professor Ted Te, however, said Guevarra's department order "directly contradicts freedom of expression."

Te cited the 2008 Supreme Court case Chavez vs Gonzales which declared as unconstitutional the press release of the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) warning against the publication of the "Hello Garci" recording. The Supreme Court said the press release constituted prior restraint.

"Alarms and scandals is a felony; the Department Order deals specifically with 'fake news' and makes it a basis for case build-up, possible arrest and prosecution. This directly contradicts freedom of expression," Te said.

Perete denied that the department order restrains free speech, saying it does not restrict action.

"It merely directs the NBI to investigate certain acts already committed, and if warranted, to file the appropriate complaint before the proper body," said Perete.

Can the Cybercrime Law kick in for "fake news" posted online?

"While Cybercrime Law specifically mentions 'content-based restrictions' it does not specifically refer to spreading 'fake news,'" said Te. –

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email or tweet @lianbuan.