POSTSCRIPT / February 1, 2018 / Thursday


Opinion Columnist

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When gov’t itself retails ‘fake news’

EVERYBODY is entitled to his opinion and his right to express it is constitutionally protected, subject only to the limitation that such expression does not unduly infringe on the rights of others.

That should be the context of discussions on possible legislation on curbing the proliferation of so-called “fake news” as the Senate committee on public information and mass communication appeared Tuesday to have set out to do.

The possible conflict arising from government-sponsored disinformation must have disturbed Sen. Grace Poe, presiding over the hearing, enough to solicit opinion on what to do with the blog of PCOO Asst. Secretary Mocha Uson, who has been accused of spreading “fake news.”

When asked, PCOO Secretary Martin Andanar said he could not find a good reason to close the blog of his subordinate who was not present in the hearing. (Even if he wanted to, will the dynamics of insider politics in Malacañang allow him?)

What to do then with government personnel whose blogging gets mixed up with their work as public officials? We strongly urge the adoption of policies and rules against such dual personality.

Prominent bloggers hold key government posts having to do with public information. As such, they use official time, public funds and enjoy the privileges and entitlements of officials.

And then, these high-profile bloggers holding government posts hit with impunity opposition members and critics of the administration. Something is clearly wrong in this setup. Whatever these bloggers post cannot be distinguished easily from their official position on public issues.

The conflict becomes more apparent when they post hate-filled statements about opposition personalities and critics of the administration. Their blogs presumably created with the help of government resources are transformed into political weapons.

Might as well admit that these officials were given sinecures precisely for past services during the election campaign and for future battles from the vantage of a public office from which to harass and intimidate the opposition.

These officials masked with dual identity must be made to drop all pretense and choose from where they want to operate as partisan bloggers or trolls.

 Blogger apologizes when confronted

ON REMEDIAL legislation, we agree with the observation of most of the resource persons in the hearing that we have enough laws to penalize purveyors of “fake news,” false reports and malicious disinformation.

One problem is in law enforcement and prosecution. The certainty of being caught is a deterrent, but authorities must be armed with enhanced penal laws and given adequate funds and advanced cybertools.

We can understand why Sen. Manny Pacquiao persisted in extracting an apology from PCOO Undersecretary Lorraine Badoy, who posted in 2016 a photo of his campaign vehicle parked in front of a house that she said belonged to the senator’s mistress.

Badoy explained she got the “fake news” from a street vendor outside the residence. Confronted with her disinformation, she apologized to the senator, who readily forgave her “as a Christian.”

She was then an assistant secretary with the social welfare department, but until Tuesday as a PCOO undersecretary, she was not even sure the offending disinformation had been taken out of her blog.

Reminds me of advice we gave in this space when Uson was also criticized for joining the Philippine delegation to the United Nations in New York in September. We said, and we now also pass this on to Badoy and younger writers venturing into journalism:

Huwag magpagamit. Write in good faith. No name-calling. We all make mistakes, but correct errors as soon as you spot them. It’s best to have an editor. Most of the respected editors I know still pass their copy to sub-editors for processing.”

 Let bloggers use gov’t resources?

DECADES of active journalism must have mellowed us, for today our attitude is more tolerant of other people’s views – as in the Maoist slogan of letting “a thousand flowers bloom” (a shortened rewrite of what he actually said in 1957).

But when government personnel using official time and taxpayers’ money systematically spread false or defamatory information disguised as personal opinion, something must be done to nip this conflict of interest.

On updating pertinent legislation, to catch up with the galloping advances in information technology, maybe we can learn from more advanced countries and “borrow” some of their technology and legislation.

The term “fake news” was given currency by then candidate and now US President Donald Trump railing against media organizations that, he thought, have been unfairly critical of him. Filipino copycats have since picked it up.

The repetitive use of the term in media has hypnotized enough people to think without reflection that any report labelled as “fake news” is false and harmful and must be rejected outright. At some point, a lie repeated endlessly can start to have the ring of truth.

Closer examination shows, however, that what propagandists and their ilk in government and private media tag as “fake news” is simply any report that they disapprove of or which is bad for their patrons and clients.

As we tried to define it in this space on Jan. 25, “fake news” is any report that a politician or public figure or a private person does not like. The misleading label is propagated by PR handlers, bloggers and propagandists till it registers in the public mind.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 1, 2018)

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