NBI to go after people 'causing panic, undermining government efforts' amid nCoV threat
People buying protective masks at a medical supplies store in Manila on January 31, 2020. The Philippines reported its first case of the virus on January 30, of a 38-year-old woman who arrived from Wuhan and is no longer showing symptoms.
AFP/Ted Aljibe
NBI to go after people 'causing panic, undermining government efforts' amid nCoV threat
Kristine Joy Patag (Philstar.com) - February 5, 2020 - 1:06pm

MANILA, Philippines — The National Bureau of Investigation will go after people who spread online posts that "[cause] undue panic and alarm" amid the risk posed by the novel coronavirus, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Guevarra directed the NBI to conduct a case build up against unnamed people "on the alleged deliberate spread of misinformation and fake news about... and false reporting of the [2019 nCoV]."

In a message to reporters on Wednesday, the Justice chief explained that his directive aims to avoid “causing undue panic and alarm.”

He added that those “undermining government efforts for a unified and coordinated approach to a common threat that affects us all” are covered by the investigation order.

"The nCoV threat is a very serious public concern and no distraction of government efforts to overcome it will be tolerated," he added.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III earlier called on media: "Let’s not be used by unscrupulous groups whose agenda is to propagate an 'infodemic',  or to spread false or baseless information about the disease.

"This problem, misinformation can be more viral than the virus that we are all guarding against," he added.

At a hearing at the Senate session hall on Tuesday, Senate President Vicente "Tito" Sotto III played a video, saying it was a report he received and that it was "somehow very interesting, if not revealing."

The video, copies of which are carried by The Atlantis Report and other YouTube channels, alleged the 2019-nCoV is a bioweapon that was either the handiwork of China or of the US and the West. 

Investigative magazine Mother Jones, in a February 1 report, mentioned "The Atlantis Report" as among the YouTube channels that it said "are cranking out content that, in many cases, spreads alarm, unsubstantiated claims, scams, and sometimes outright disinformation.

Lawmakers enjoy parliamentary immunity and the 1987 Constitution holds that "no member shall be questioned nor be held liable in any other place for any speech or debate in Congress or in any committee thereof."

Cybercrime law

Guevarra explained that charges under the Revised Penal Code in relation to the Cybercrime Prevention law may be filed against people who spread misinformation about nCoV.

"If the intent in causing the publication of false information is to create or aggravate public disorder, or undermine government efforts during a state of public emergency, and such publication is effected by means of information technology, appropriate charges under the Revised Penal Code in relation to the Cybercrime Prevention Law may be filed against perpetrators," he said.

While the Supreme Court in 2014 declared a provision penalizing aiding and abetting to commit cybercrimes as unconstitutional, Guevarra noted the DOJ and NBI have experts to determine if violations were committed.

"I suppose they will scope the field first and see if there’s a malicious scheme or pattern somewhere," he added.

'Freedom of expression is not absolute'

Guevarra also said that he expects that issues on freedom of expression may be raised in his latest directive but stressed that the right is not absolute.

“I expect that freedom of speech issues will be raised, but as lawyers we all know that there are limitations to this Constitutional right, including the greater interest of the public,” he explained.

There is still no law penalizing the spread of fake news or “false content” in the country.

Sotto filed a proposed bill seeking to legislate “false content” last year, but the Human Rights Watch flagged the measure as threat to internet freedom and exchange of ideas.

RELATED: Bioweapon conspiracy video creeps into Senate coronavirus hearing

Malacañang has no hand in NBI directive

Guevarra also clarified that the Palace had nothing to do with the order to investigate.

"I have personally observed a slew of internet/social media communications that tend to sow panic and confusion regarding this public health issue," he said.

The Justice secretary also noted that this was raised in the Senate legislative hearing on Tuesday. Among the online posts mentioned were of a man who had supposedly collapsed due to 2019-nCoV Acute Respiratory Disease. It turned out that a man was a Korean national who had passed out because he was drunk.

"Malacañang had nothing to do with it," the Justice secretary said.

2019 NCOV DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE FAKE NEWS MENARDO GUEVARRA NATIONAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION NOVEL CORONAVIRUS
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