POSTSCRIPT / September 5, 2017 / Tuesday


Opinion Columnist

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Fake news illegal, can send one to jail

THE AMENDING of the decades-old Revised Penal Code to enable the law to catch up with inflation and the imagination of criminals has made the publication of “false news” a crime punishable by longer imprisonment and heavier fines.

It is the law that makes an act a crime. With RA 10951 that President Duterte signed into law on Aug. 29 to amend the penal code, the crime of publishing “false news” has emerged as a sore point in his relations with media.

Fifteen days after the amendments are published in two newspapers of general circulation and take effect, newsmen will have to be more careful about reporting “false news,” a term that still has to be defined more clearly.

Another gray area is how bloggers and others in social media claiming to be “non-journalists” can be covered. Lawyers, students of law and others with lawyerly pretensions will have a field day dissecting the new terms spawned by the RPC amendment.

Where run the lines separating various adjectives modifying news – such as its being fake, erroneous, incorrect, misleading, malicious, mischievous, wrong, inaccurate, et cetera? Do these adjectives, some of them overlapping, make news false in the RPC sense?

And while the RPC speaks of “false news,” how is opinion categorized? Is there such a thing as “false opinion”? What’s the legal difference, for instance, between saying “President Duterte has cancer” (news) and “I think President Duterte has cancer” (opinion)?

That is no idle question, because news is different from views – unless citizens are no longer free to give their views on public issues, or that only the legal opinion of the Justice Secretary is controlling in all cases until overturned by a competent court.

• Rein in gov’t fake news purveyors

THIS MEMBER of the second oldest profession is glad that our exciting job has become more exacting. This will force us to shape up, and go back to the media standards and journalist’s codes taught in school and drummed into our heads by the martinets at the editorial desk.

But is it too much to ask for an even application of the law? The same rigorous rules must apply to officials and staff of government communication offices funded with taxpayers’ money. The same strictures must be imposed on their army of trolls.

Being in the government, the more reason these propagandists should be covered by the amendment saying that “publishing false news that could endanger public order or cause damage to the interest or credit of the State would be fined P40,000 to P200,000.” (The fines used to range from P200 to P1,000.)

We suggest that judges order erring state workers to pay the fines from their private pockets since spreading fake news, even if described as just “symbolism,” is not part of their duties as government propagandists.

Those of us scarred by harassment libel suits would like to thank whoever inserted this small consuelo that “this Act shall have retroactive effect to the extent that is favorable to the accused or person serving sentence by judgment.”

• Amendment restores death penalty?

WHILE reviewing the upgraded penalties for crimes other than libel, we noticed that Filipinos committing treason would henceforth be punished by reclusion perpetua to death and pay a fine of at most P4 million (from the original of P20,000).

Don’t look now, but has President Duterte just restored the death sentence as the maximum penalty for treason?

A related question: If the person committing treason is the president himself, can he be sued? (We’re not talking of removing him, but suing him.)

I am aware of the hoary arguments being peddled that the president (whoever he is, without reference to Mr. Duterte) is immune from suit. But you won’t find anything in the Constitution granting the president immunity.

The reason: Nobody, even if he is the president, is above the law. In fact, he is sworn to defend the Constitution and execute the law.

Immunity was in the 1973 Marcos Constitution – inserted there by the dictator to protect himself — but it was removed from the current 1987 Constitution for the simple reason that the stupid provision should not have been there in the first place.

The apostles of presidential immunity cite precedents, practice, tradition, blah-blah, but those citations run counter to the letter and the spirit of the Constitution. They should be struck down.

• Definition and elements of libel stay

THE RPC amendments did not change the definition of libel. The main changes upgraded the penalties for the crime of “unlawful use of means of publication and unlawful utterances,” including the publication of false news.

Article 154 of the code defines “unlawful use” as the “printing, lithography, or any other means of publication” of “false news which may endanger the public order, or cause damage to the interest or credit of the State.”

Persons who, by publication, words, or speech encourage “disobedience to the law or to the constituted authorities” or who praise, justify, or extol any crime are liable.

It’s also a crime to maliciously publish official resolutions or documents without proper authority or before they have been published officially, or to print, publish or distribute materials such as books, pamphlets, periodicals, or leaflets that do not bear the printer’s name, or which are tagged as anonymous.

Libel is defined in Article 353 as a “public and malicious imputation of a crime, or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status or circumstance tending to discredit or cause the dishonor or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead.”

The elements of libel are: imputation of a discreditable act or condition to another; publication of the imputation; identity of the person defamed; and existence of malice.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 5, 2017)

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