Published 20 April 2020, The Daily Tribune

Fake news has been the bane of social media for a long time now. It has been used to malign (or give undue credit) to public officials or celebrities and cause confusion and panic. The harm of fake news is highlighted amid the COVID-19 pandemic where a single piece of unverified information can cause disaster. For instance, a fake news of, let’s say, a looming food shortage can realistically lead a massive crowd to flock to groceries and markets, when people should be on strict quarantine. Worst, spreading false news that someone is afflicted with the dreaded COVID-19 virus is most unkind and unfair. It exposes the poor victim to harassment, ostracism, isolation and all other undeserved and untold suffering. If you think this is not happening, think again. I have received various text messages asking me if this person and that individual caught the virus. My reaction, albeit only to myself, how the hell will I know? Are we not all on lockdown?

It makes you wonder what drives fake news peddlers to do such inhuman, reckless and irresponsible behavior. Well, for the fake news peddlers, let me say it is not only an offense against truth and justice, it is a criminal offense.

Perhaps Congress had this in mind when they included at the last-minute a provision punishing peddling of fake news in Republic Act (RA) 11469, or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, which was signed into law last 24 March 2020.

Section 6, paragraph (f) of RA 11469 punishes “individuals or groups creating, perpetrating, or spreading false information regarding the COVID-19 crisis on social media and other platforms, such information having no valid or beneficial effect on the population, and are clearly geared to promote chaos, panic, anarchy, fear, or confusion; and those participating in cyber incidents that make use or take advantage of the current crisis situation to prey on the public through scams, phishing, fraudulent emails, or other similar acts.” Those caught violating said provision may face imprisonment of two months, or a fine ranging from P10,000 to P1,000,000 or both.

With the above penal provision, Congress seeks to deter individuals or groups from taking advantage of the pandemic to sow fear, panic or anger with fake news.

It should be noted, however, that even before RA 11469, spreading fake news to promote chaos, panic and fear is already a crime.

Under Article 154, paragraph 1 of the Revised Penal Code, “Any person who by means of printing, lithography, or any other means of publication shall publish or cause to be published as news any false news which may endanger the public order, or cause damage to the interest or credit of the State” shall be punished with the penalty of arresto mayor (imprisonment ranging from one month and one day to six months) and a fine ranging from P40,000 to P200,000.

Given that the Revised Penal Code took effect way back in 1932, Congress then obviously did not have social media in mind, but the phrase “any other means of publication” under Article 154 may be broad enough to include false news published in social media. At any rate, these laws are clearly an indictment of falsity and the serious harm it can cause not just to the person but to the community.

Setting aside the laws, one should heed a very practical and sound advice from a great saint: “If you cannot say a word of praise, say nothing.”

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