MANILA – President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration is upholding the freedom of speech and expression of every Filipino in the Philippines, Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) Secretary Martin Andanar said on Friday.
“This government values every Filipino’s freedom of speech and expression, knowing that they are truly vital toward a free flow of information and constructive and productive discourses,” Andanar said in a press statement.
Andanar’s statement was in response to the claim of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Wednesday that Asian nations, including the Philippines, are using coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) crisis as an excuse to clamp down on freedom of expression and to tighten censorship.
Bachelet also expressed alarm over the arbitrary arrests of people who criticize the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic or even simply share views on the crisis in different Asian countries.
Andanar said the UN rights chief’s concerns are “unfounded and uncalled for.”
He said the government’s actions amid the pandemic are done with “transparency, impartiality, and accountability.”
Andanar lamented that Bachelet had opted to believe “misinformation” amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Without a doubt, global disinformation on matters relevant to social progress and development has created disorder, confusion, and division among communities. Furthermore, this generates effective spaces where corrupt individuals can flourish and exploit the public’s fears and vulnerabilities if left unchecked,” he said.
Andanar ensured that any arrests that were made amid the government’s fight against Covid-19 were not targeted “towards silencing the critics of this administration.”
“All operations that the government has undertaken regarding this matter, are legal operations that are hinged on the respect for the rule of law and due process as provided by the country’s justice system,” he said.
Andanar also guaranteed that the Philippine government “values, protects, and upholds” press freedom by safeguarding the media environment and the media workers.
“Such freedoms clearly prove our thriving democracy,” he said.
Crackdown on people taking advantage of the crisis
With regard to the spread of fake news amid the health crisis, the government needs to take appropriate actions to counter the possible creation of an “environment of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty among global societies that are being exploited by those with their own agendas,” Andanar said.
He said the government would not tolerate those taking advantage of the crisis, especially those who are propagating false information.
Citing Section 6(f) of Republic Act (RA) 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, Andanar said individuals and groups creating, perpetuating, or spreading fake news about the Covid-19 crisis on social media and other platforms with “no valid or beneficial effect on the population” should be punished.
“It responds to cyber incidents that are taking advantage of the current pandemic situation to prey on the public through illegal activities,” Andanar said. “When one uses information to deliberately mislead and deceive the general public on relevant matters, possibly leading them to harm, the complications caused by such actions need to be legally dealt with and rectified.”
RA 11469 states that people peddling false information about Covid-19 pandemic could face a two-month jail sentence or a fine ranging from PHP10,000 to PHP1 million, or both.
Andanar said the government’s actions against fake news peddlers are “not acts curtailing these freedoms [of expression and speech].”
“Instead, they are acts meant to undermine ill interests of promoting an anarchical and ignorant society,” he said.
He also took note of the case of a Filipino caregiver in Taiwan who violated legal provisions of RA 11469.
On April 25, Philippine labor attaché Fidel Macauyag on April 25 sought the deportation of Elanel Egot Ordidor, a Filipino caregiver in Taiwan, for posting “nasty and malevolent” criticisms against Duterte on social media.
Taipei’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however, rejected the deportation request, saying freedom of speech is enjoyed by “both citizens and migrant workers” in Taiwan.
Andanar clarified that the case of Ordidor was “not an act of silencing dissent, but an act of penalizing those who promulgate libelous and false information under our legal system.”
“Tolerating the spread of misinformation in the name of everyone’s freedom of speech and expression is no different from encouraging an individual to remain apathetic and oblivious to the growing societal problems everyone is facing, especially at this time of Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.
‘Period of adjustments’
Meanwhile, Andanar acknowledged that the country is now in a “period of adjustments” after President Rodrigo Duterte eased the quarantine restrictions nationwide.
“Leading forward is a paradigm, a standard of conduct in thought and action against the horrific coronavirus, and whatever else that threatens or may threaten our lives. It is a model in health and livelihood activities,” Andanar said in his opening remarks during the sixth Covid-19 virtual town hall meeting.
Andanar said the country can move forward through the help of local government units, public information officers, and youth leaders.
He expressed hope that they would dedicate “genuine leadership and service” as the country’s battle against Covid-19 continues.
“We are at the beginning of a new era. Following the developing phases of health quarantines, we are in a state of reopening. We now enter a period of adjustments, which we have yet to accept. These premises compel us that there is really no other way than to move forward,” he said. (PNA)