The problem with fake news is who gets to define it. Is it government? The media? The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP)? Should we be democratic about it and put it to a vote? As I see it, none of these options is viable.
1. Government, of course, must not be allowed to define any news as fake. The 1987 Constitution expressly prohibits it:
No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances. (Section 4, Article III, the Bill of Rights)
This is because for all the controversy and anger surrounding fake news, it is still protected by the Constitution. In a democracy, anyone can say anything he or she wants; the only caveat is that one must be ready to face the consequences, whether it be a word war or, worse, a libel case (the Philippines is one of the few countries where libel is a criminal offense and can earn one prison time).
The problem with fake news is that we have to include it in the list of protected speech. We can’t fight for our right to, say, criticize government and at the same time seek to curtail the right of others to say what they want, even if we don’t agree with them or even believe what they say. The two are the same rights, and they both have to be protected at all cost.
2. The media, while they may seem like a good candidate, must be disqualified from defining fake news. We know that there are many honest, upright, and hard working journalists, but the media themselves are one huge industry that ultimately protect the interests of the owners. A recent example of this the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s obvious bias against Gina Lopez, who openly fought mining companies during her abbreviated time as Environment Secretary. From using double entendres (“Gina calls for review of mining law” — a lewd heading that has since been changed online to “DENR chief calls for review…”) to describing her cancelation of 75 mining contracts a “massacre” to positively rejoicing when the Commission on Appointments rejected her (“CA REJECTS GINA LOPEZ; MINING STOCKS JUMP”), the Inquirer never even attempted to hide its dislike for Lopez.
The apparent reason? Inquirer president Sandy Prieto is married to Benjamin Philip Romualdez, president of the Chamber of Mines and CEO of Benguet Corp., one of the mining companies suspended by Lopez.
I could go on about other media companies, but you get the drift. But now, an industry that can be so biased has taken it upon itself to “help” Filipinos block fake news on Facebook. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) earlier this month actually released a plug-in for Google Chrome that “blocks articles from fake news sites on your Facebook newsfeed.” Fakeblok “grays out Facebook posts from fake news sites that are on the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR)’s list.” In other words, journalists in the Philippines, who are supposed to be the vanguard of freedom of expression, want to filter and censor the information available to Filipinos.
3. I included the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) because a few days ago it came out with a pastoral letter urging Catholics to stop spreading fake news as it is “a sin against charity.” I have no problem with this because it is certainly within its duties to warn its followers about what it feels are evil. But the CBCP happened to included my outfit, MindaNation.com, in its list of fake news sites, and I have to say that this shows how little it actually studied the matter before releasing its list. Mindanation is a legitimate news/feature/opinion website that is recognized by the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) and, not least, by the almost half-million followers we have on social media. We have never ever released any fake news; each news article is vetted and reviewed to make sure they stand up to scrutiny. What we do have are strong opinions by our columnists, but columns are not news, so they can never be fake. Apparently, however, the CBCP also defines strong opinion as fake news.
So if government, the media, and the CBCP cannot define what fake news is, then who can? The answer is simple: No one. I believe in a free market of ideas, one where all forms of speech and expression are allowed. That scenario will naturally attract fakers and even lunatics, but we have to let them in. It is the people who will decide what they want to believe in. While the traditional media make a fuss about how many people fall for fake news, I think the reality on the ground is far different — and much more positive. I still have faith in the intellect of the Filipino people, and I believe they know what they can and cannot trust.