World Press Freedom Day: Disinformation, New Guns, Morons and Gold

A politician bent on manipulating the election outcome may have found a new weapon to replace traditional guns, goons and gold: disinformation.

The impact of growing misinformation and disinformation is highly relevant today as it has become a powerful tool to influence voters’ decision in the hotly contested presidential election in May 2022.

Press freedom advocates have lamented that the use of systematic and deliberate disinformation has not only threatened democracy, but is also “using hard-won freedoms to kill democracy itself”.

In his keynote speech at the Southeast Asia Digital Conference titled “Finding an antidote to cyberattacks, fake news and disinformation amid election fever in Southeast Asia”legal luminary Raul C. Pangalangan, a retired judge of the International Criminal Court (ICC), pointed out the irony of the growing misinformation on social media platforms.

“This is systemic and systematic disinformation. And the ultimate irony, getting a free ride on the very freedom we offer by precisely using the open space we protect,” he said.

Attorney Joel R. Butuyan, president of the Center for International Law-Philippines (CenterLaw), exposed misinformation as a powerful tool to influence the election.

“We can see that fake news will displace guns, goons and gold as the weapon of choice for politicians plotting to manipulate our elections,” he said.

The conference, a joint venture of the Freedom of Expression Advocates Coalition – Southeast Asia (AFEC-SEA), Institute of Human Rights, University of the Philippines Law Center ( UP-IHR) and Center-Law, was to commemorate World Press Freedom Day on May 3.

President of AFEC-SEA Atty. Gilbert Teruel Andres has warned that the May 9 election results could be based on misinformation, citing its effect on the campaigns of his rivals, former Sen. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. and Vice President Leni Robredo.

“It’s been well documented that misinformation really helps support the frontrunner in this election and really negatively affects the No. 2 candidate, Vice President Leni Robredo,” Andres explained.

Furthermore, Butuyan added the danger of a successful disinformation campaign by Marcos as it could influence other political dynasties to follow suit and use the spread of distorted facts on social media to win the election.

“If fake news has been able to resurrect the Marcos surname which has long been associated with one of the darkest periods in Philippine history…then political dynasties with far lesser sins will surely take notice and will follow suit,” he said.

Pangalangan added that democracy today is not under attack by “brutal measures” but by disinformation.

“The Marcos dictatorship killed democracy by jailing journalists, shutting down newspapers, and installing spies and government watchdogs in newsrooms. Today, democracy is in jeopardy without resorting to such brutal measures. All it takes is to devalue the truth and displace reason from public discourse,” the former editor of the Philippine Daily Inquirer said.

Fighting misinformation

Other resource speakers discussed how to combat misinformation and disinformation as it continues to target a largely unaware audience that consumes news on social media.

Ellen Tordesillas of VERA Files said that fact-checking is a solution, even if fact-checking alone is not enough.

“Fact-checking is not the ultimate solution. This is just one of the measures to fight misinformation,” Tordesillas said.

Panel at Southeast Asia Digital Conference

Human Rights Commissioner Karen Lucia S. Gomez-Dumpit highlighted the importance of media literacy in combating disinformation.

“I believe that media literacy is actually a way forward. It’s an antidote because triangulating information is really a skill, and we need to teach it to everyone,” Gomez-Dumpit said.

Meanwhile, the SIM card registration law, which some lawmakers thought was the best solution, and recently opposed by President Rodrigo Duterte, has been ruled unconstitutional.

“This violates the constitutional rights to free speech and free speech. It also threatens our privacy because the system will contain the credentials of the registrants. Angel S. Averia Jr. of the National Citizens Movement for Free Elections pointed out.

Ruchapong of iLaw in Thailand agreed and cited as an example that the Thai government has used SIM card registration to suppress criticism.

Responsibility in journalism

A similar forum was co-organized by northern media, human rights organizations and the Department of Communication at the University of the Philippines Baguio.

Voltaire Tupaz, Content Director of FYT Media, stressed the importance of journalists’ responsibility and respect for ethical standards of journalism: truth and accuracy, independence, justice and bias and humility.

As journalists… dapat tayo are responsible storytellers. Ang ibig sabihin no’n kapag nagkamali tayo, aminin natin, mag-erratum. Nandyan ang bylines and mukha natin… dahil pinapakita natin saating viewers and readers na pinaninindigan natin ang story, vinerfiy natin… and factual ito. Kapag nagkamali tayo, they can hold us accountable,Tupaz remarked.

(As journalists, we must be responsible storytellers. This means that if we make a mistake, we admit it and issue an erratum. Our signatures and our faces are there, because we want to show our readers and viewers that we stand behind our story, we have verified them and they are factual. If we are wrong, they can hold us responsible.)

Former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno was a guest at the Baguio forum and discussed the laws that journalists and ordinary citizens can invoke in the event of human rights violations, particularly in light of the country’s withdrawal from the ICC.

Former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno
Former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno

In particular, she cited Republic Act 10368, which highlights compliance with international human rights laws and conventions. Under this law, everyone has rights, whether or not they are enshrined in national law.

She said that citizens, as a sovereign people holding all the temporal powers granted to officials, can and should pressure the government to enforce human rights laws with reference to the Constitution.

On the issue of decriminalizing defamation, Sereno said it’s not as simple as passing a law, as it involves “the whole system”. Just as necessary as legislation is the importance of a professional and honest prosecution against defamation.

Open Forum on UP Baguio Forum

Jacqueline Cariño, Vice President of External Affairs of Cordillera Peoples Alliance, thanked the organizers and speakers for the event. “We are grateful for forums like this as they serve as a community of support to counter these chilling effects and the harmful impact of misinformation and human rights abuses,” Carino said.

World Press Freedom Day is observed to remind governments of their commitment to defend freedom of expression and to allow media professionals to reflect on current issues facing the industry.

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