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Philippine Authorities Go After Media, Online Critics

Misuse of COVID-19 Law as Dozens Face Probes, Backlash

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a late night live broadcast in Malacanang, Manila, Philippines, April 3, 2020. © 2020 Toto Lozano/Malacanang Presidential Photographers Divisiion via AP

The Philippine government is cracking down on journalists and social media users critical of the government’s COVID-19 response, threatening media freedom and the rights to free expression and access to information.   

On March 24, President Rodrigo Duterte signed a COVID-19 law that provides the administration funding and grants broad emergency powers to address the coronavirus. A last-minute provision criminalizes the spreading of “false information” with up to 2 months in prison and a 1 million peso (US$19,600) fine.

National and local authorities have used COVID-19 and existing legislation against those critical of the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. Last week, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) initiated legal action against 17 people for allegedly posting “false information” online, an offense that carries steep penalties. Police filed cases against two journalists, citing violations of the COVID-19 law and other laws. Police also brought a case against a town mayor for allegedly “causing a COVID-19 scare.” 

Local government officials have taken action against critical journalists. The governor of Cebu province sent an intimidating message to the editor of a campus newspaper for criticizing the government’s COVID-19 response. Neighborhood leaders in Nueva Ecija province called in the editor of a campus paper to press him to apologize for publishing critical posts.

On Thursday, human rights lawyer Jose Manuel Diokno disclosed on Twitter that the NBI had subpoenaed a Facebook user for his critical posts, citing the COVID-19 law. “This has become a concerning trend because it is easy for the government to blur the line between legitimate criticism and ‘fake news,’” Diokno told Human Rights Watch. Diokno’s decision to take on this case prompted President Duterte to publicly accuse the lawyer of encouraging people to violate lockdowns.

The national and local governments are using their authority, buttressed by a problematic provision of the law, to crack down on critics while proclaiming they are simply going after peddlers of incorrect COVID-19 information. Duterte should call on government officials to focus on measures to defeat the coronavirus and ensure that Filipinos have access to information, rather than be deprived of it.

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