Roque to opposition: Bill vs officials spreading 'fake news' would be used against you

MANILA, Philippines – Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque warned the opposition that the minority-backed measure seeking to penalize government officials spreading fake news would likely be used against them.

Roque said this during a Senate hearing on Wednesday, June 20, as he reiterated his strong opposition to Senate Bill 1680, which seeks to impose higher penalties on government officials caught spreading false or manufactured information.

Roque said it is hard to define what “fake news” is, even as he himself has repeatedly used it as a reason to criticize news organizations. He also noted that the proposed measure violates the equal protection clause, saying that the 1987 Constitution protects fake news as well.

Senators refuted this, saying government officials are "set on a higher plane" of standards.

Addressing the Senate committee on civil service, government reorganization, and professional regulation chaired by Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, Roque then floated the possibility that the measure, even if passed into law, would not be applied to administration allies, citing the case in past administrations.

“’Di po dapat ganito pero ang realidad, kapag ay ikaw mataas na taong gobyerno, di ka lang naman puro kakampi ng gobyerno. Meron ding oposisyon. Ang tanong ko sa inyo: Ang mataas na taong gobyerno ba na kakampi ng administrasyon, lilitisin pag sila’y lumabag dito? Chances are sa ating kasaysayan, 'pag ikaw malapit sa gobyerno, hindi ikaw lilitisin,” Roque said.

(This should not be the case but in reality, if you are a government official, it's not all allies. There's also the opposition. My question to you is this: Will government officials allied with the administration be charged if they violate this law? Chances are, according to our history, if you are an ally, you won't be charged.)

In front of minority senators Trillanes and Paolo Benigno Aquino IV, Roque said: “Sino'ng lilitisin ‘pag nagkaganitong batas? Ang mga opisyales ng gobyerno na nasa oposisyon at kaya nga po ang ating Bill of Rights tinutulungan niyan ay 'yung puwedeng apihin ng gobyerno. Ito po magagamit sa oposisyon. Kayo po nasa oposiyon, kami hindi. So 'yun po ang iniiwasan natin, lalong-lalo na walang depenisyon, magagamit sa panunupil.”

(Who will be charged if this law is passed? Government officials in the opposition. That's why our Bill of Rights is there to help the minority. This measure will be used against the opposition. You guys are in the opposition now, we are not. So that's what we are trying to avoid. Especially with the lack of clear definition, this bill will be used for persecution.)

Aquino did not take this sitting down and directly asked Roque if he was saying that the proposed measure would be of no use in exacting accountability from administration officials and allies.

“I’ll give you opportunity to clarify. So sinasabi 'nyo ba, kahit na mapasa ito, walang lilitisin sa administrasyon at gagamitin sa opposition? Parang ganoon ang sinasabi 'nyo eh (So you're saying even if this is passed, no one from the administration will be held accountable and this will be used against the opposition? I think that was your point),” Aquino said.

Roque admitted it was indeed what he meant by his statement, citing selective justice in past administrations. He then clarified it is not a policy of the Duterte administration.

“Ang sinasabi ko 'yun po yung propensity – 'pag ikaw kakampi ng gobyerno, ikaw pa pagtatakpan. ‘Di ko sinasabi 'yan nangyayari ngayon….Together with vagueness of the definition, ang makakasuhan lang nito mga kalaban ng administrasyon,” Roque said.

(All I'm saying is that is the propensity, that if you're an ally of the government, you will even be protected. I'm not saying that is what's happening now. But together with the vagueness of the definition, only the enemies of the administration would be charged.)

“It’s a possibility. I was just illustrating why this law is unconstitutional. Ang sinasabi ko lang (All I'm saying is that) it violates freedom of expression, a tool for persecution…. I’m even voicing my concern for the opposition,” he added.

Trillanes countered Roque, saying it is a policy of the current administration to use the law to harass its critics. He cited the 6 cases filed against him, particularly over his privilege speech against Duterte in 2017. 

Trillanes said the Duterte camp still filed a complaint against him over his privilege speech even if the 1987 Constitution protects it. 

Roque, in an interview after the hearing, denied that his statement was a warning to the opposition.

"Of course not. Sila nga ang nagsusulong ako nga nagtututol. Bakit naman mangyayari 'yun (They were the ones who proposed it, I'm opposing it. Why would that happen)? So I hope that’s not taken out of context kasi ang sinasabi ko nga ang (because as what I said) bill of rights is to protect the views of the minority," he said.

Members of the minority in Congress have been the usual victims of "fake news" – some spread by Palace Communications Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson and by former justice secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II.

Trillanes said he would hold another hearing to discuss the issue further, including the contentious issue of definition. –

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is a multimedia reporter focusing on media, technology, and disinformation.