[OPINION] Confrontation at the Senate
Second of two parts | Part 1: Fake news, bad views, and society’s loss
In the Senate hearing last October 4, traditional media came out well while the pro-Duterte bloggers gave the impression of being arrogant, careless with their facts, and contemptuous of other people. (WATCH: Senate hearing on fake news online)
Unlike others, I thought that Senator Senator Grace Poe chaired the hearing vwery well. As a long-time practitioner and professor of negotiations and consensus building, that was excellent facilitation. She was fair and balanced, true to what she promised when she called the session to order: “Let me make it clear that I accord respect to every single resource person in my hearing. I don’t choose whether you’re against me or for me or for my views. And the reason why I’m giving you this chance is because this hearing is not for me.”
Poe gave all her resource persons sufficient air time and was deferential to all of us (I was invited as an expert on constitutional law). I personally would not have praised Mr RJ Nieto, the blogger behind Thinking Pinoy, the way she did. But if she had a first-hand experience of Nieto’s blogs, apparently in the Uber-LTFRB issue, then there might have been a basis for that comment she has been widely criticized for.
Senator Poe also gave every senator a chance to ask questions and that is why Bam Aquino and Nancy Binay were able to ask the most effective questions in that hearing. These were addressed to Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson who failed to answer satisfactorily why she does not seek the side of people she criticizes and why she is still blogging even if she is already a government official.
It’s interesting to me that Senator Binay stood out as smart, objective and fair in the Senate hearing. After all, her father was maliciously and incessantly attacked with fake news and bad views to stop him from winning the 2016 elections. I salute Senator Binay for transcending her personal experience and doing the right thing.
Spotlight on the bloggers
My main critique of Poe’s performance in that meeting was her remarks on the anti-Duterte bloggers, noting with some sarcasm their absence and anonymity. The senator is aware that this is a vindictive government and it's understandable why critics go underground.
In any case, the spotlight was on the pro-Duterte bloggers in that hearing and people are able to conclude what kind of persons they are, their methods of research or lack of it, and whether they can be trusted. Those who are pro-Duterte thought they did well, while those who are anti-Duterte highlight the arrogance, unfairness, and disregard of the truth by the bloggers.
Personally, I have nothing against the pro-Duterte bloggers. I consider them as propagandists and have always seen their work from that perspective. There have been a couple of times that some of them have attacked me but I did and do not mind that. I do have strong opinions and I expect people will disagree with me.
For the last two years, I have conducted moot court exercises where I asked my students to exhaustively research the writings and posts of pro- and anti-Duterte bloggers and to attack and defend them on the basis of their propagation of fake news and inciting of hate versus freedom of speech and press.
In all occasions we have done this exercise, the students usually conclude that most of the time, these bloggers are really just proposing political arguments albeit very passionately and in tenors that make dialogue impossible. It is different of course when there is an incitement to hate or violence, when language is used so that the target is exposed to psychological and physical danger. There can be accountability for that.
In this context, I fully support Ms Jover Laurio, the blogger behind the Pinoy Ako Blog. My politics is different from hers (I do not think that everything the Duterte government has done is wrong nor do I believe the previous government was free of malfeasance) and I would use more polite language, but I find her idealism and courage refreshing. Teaching more than 400 law students in a week in schools across the Philippines, I encourage my law students to emulate Ms Laurio. I also agree with her strategy of filing as many law suits as there are those who threaten her with physical harm. She should also go after the instigators.
Who will guard the guardians?
This resort to case by case litigation, using existing laws, might be the best way to approach the problem of fake news and bad views. I suggest that this is also the way forward against those who make threats and those that instigate them. Of course, this can also have a chilling effect on free speech but this is a better choice than new laws that would allow for prior restraint. I also would counsel bloggers or government officials not to resort to filing libel: for the former, because most of them do cross libelous boundaries frequently; for the latter, because they should not be onion-skinned.
I certainly do not trust any government body to police traditional media and social media. If such body is created, it will be proper to ask that classic question: who will guard the guardians?
Congress, however, does have options with respect to the platforms that allow fake news and hate language to proliferate. In Germany, it has been reported that laws will be passed imposing heavy fines on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms for failure to take out fake or hate content within specified timeframes. Laws are not even necessary for this as consumer demand might be enough.
To defeat fake news and bad views, we must also understand how we got to where we are now. In my view, it’s because of our collective tolerance of the excesses of politics. In my view, the quality of our politics began with the demonization of Erap Estrada in the impeachment process against him and in the manner in which Estrada was ousted. This continued with the way former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo won the 2004 elections against Ferdando Poe Jr.
President Noynoy Aquino could have changed the political atmosphere in 2010 by being more magnanimous in victory. But instead, the politically motivated attacks, going beyond the boundaries of ethics and truth, continued first against Arroyo and Chief Justice Renato Corona, and then Vice President Jejomar Binay.
Later the same tactics were used against Senator Grace Poe, Secretary Mar Roxas, and in the last days of the campaign, against Mayor Rodrigo Duterte when the latter began to lead in the polls. There were legitimate issues against all these individuals but one wished partisans respected basic boundaries of decency.
President Duterte could also have changed the toxic politics of this country. But instead, his own speeches have worsened the situation.
To end, I echo Senator Poe’s closing remarks in the Senate hearing: “I think that if there is one thing agreed upon in this hearing it is this: misinformation should have no place in today’s democratic society, if we can prevent it. Speech, as long as it is not libelous, seditious or does not incite violence, should not be curtailed or inhibited. I’ll be the first one to speak against that. Therefore, think before you click.” – Rappler.com