The coronavirus and freedom of speech

The coronavirus scare is driving the rumor mills in overdrive. Social media is awash with posts, feeds and comments offering alleged cures and what preventive measures to take, manner of transmission and other information concerning the corona virus now sweeping across many parts of the world, particularly China.

The spread of fake news is such that the Health Secretary himself lamented that the rise of infodemic, or deliberate spreading of misinformation, is more viral than the virus itself. It cannot be denied that misinformation causes panic and undermines the efforts of the government to address this crisis. This concern prompted the Philippine National Police to take measures to crackdown on rumor mongers. The authorities threaten to file criminal cases against netizens spreading misinformation using a martial law vintage statute, Presidential Decree no. 90 also known as the rumor mongering law.

PD No. 90 was issued by then President Marcos four months after he declared martial law. The objective of the law was to stamp out “the utterance, publication, distribution, circulation and spread of rumors, false news or information and gossip that cause divisive effects among the people, discredit of or distrust for the duly constituted authorities and/or that undermine the stability of the government and the objectives of the New Society and, therefore, inimical to the best interests of the State.”

Thankfully, PD No. 90 is a dead law having been repealed by President Corazon Aquino on reason that the decree was used as an instrument by the dictator to stifle dissent and muzzle freedom of expression. Clearly, that decree had the clear intent to prop up the Marcos dictatorship even if it hid behind such good objectives as national security and national unity.

Cory Aquino did the right thing in repealing the Marcos decree. Today, we must also reject similar efforts even if the objective, in the case of the coronavirus issue, is laudable – to prevent panic because of disinformation.

First on practical grounds: threatening to punish peddlers of false news may be an exercise in futility. Assuming authorities can put a stop to spreading fake news in social media, this will only be effective against individuals operating within the country. Exchange of information in cyberspace is such that one can receive or send, with a simple click of a finger, any information to and from any corner of the world, even in the unlikeliest places such as Timbuktu or Easter Island. Unless we do a North Korea, a totalitarian state, which is regarded as an internet black hole, which restricted access to the internet to its citizens. Censoring or worse depriving Filipinos of the enormous benefits of the internet is not doable; it is counterproductive as well.

Second on constitutional grounds: criminalizing the spread of fake news and dangling legal sanction to whoever engages in it is to give a chilling effect to the free flow of ideas and free and open discourse of issues of public concern which is a legitimate and constitutionally guaranteed exercise of free expression. As Associate Justice Carpio so aptly puts it in his opinion in Chaves v. Gonzalez: “Freedom of expression is the foundation of a free, open and democratic society. Freedom of expression is an indispensable condition to the exercise of almost all other civil and political rights. No society can remain free, open and democratic without freedom of expression. Freedom of expression guarantees full, spirited, and even contentious discussion of all social, economic and political issues. To survive, a free and democratic society must zealously safeguard freedom of expression.”

Third on political grounds: it is susceptible to abuse by the State by stifling dissent and punishing those who espouse ideas and views that run counter to official position. The case of Dr. Li Wenliang, the whistleblower doctor in Wuhan, is a case in point. As early as December of last year Dr. Li Wenliang raised the alarm about a mysterious virus that would become the coronavirus epidemic. He was detained and punished by the Wuhan police for “spreading false rumors”. He was forced to sign a police document to admit he had breached the law and had “seriously disrupted social order.”

Last week, Dr. Li Wenliang died from the disease. He is considered a hero by many Chinese and protests against his treatment has been widespread. It has been argued that the coronavirus problem would not have escalated  the way it has if only there was freedom of speech in China.

How do we then combat fake news? The way to go is not to imprison or impose legal sanctions but to fight it with truthful news in the same way that bad, hateful views can be checked with good perspectives. People must be educated to be more discerning of what and what not to believe in, become more vigilant, making it a habit to fact check every information received, and inculcating in internet-users/media practitioners and the public in general a high sense of civic responsibility in the use of social media and other forms of mass media. 

As we have seen in China, suppressing freedom of expression will worsen the coronavirus crisis and not help us address it properly.


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