Philippine govt. goes after media, online critics with new COVID-19 bill – HRW


International rights group accuses the Philippine authorities of using COVID-19 and existing legislation against those critical of the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, threatening media freedom and the rights to free expression and access to information.

A last-minute provision in the emergency law signed recently by President Rodrigo Duterte criminalises the spreading of “false information” with up to two months in prison and a 1 million peso (US$19,600) fine, Human Rights Watch (HRW) alleged.

Mr. Duterte signed a COVID-19 law that provides the administration funding and grants broad emergency powers to address the coronavirus.

Last week, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) initiated legal action against 17 people for allegedly posting “false information” online, an offence that carries steep penalties.

The police have 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 also taken action against critical journalists, said HRW.

The governor of Cebu province sent an intimidating message to the editor of a campus newspaper for criticising the government’s COVID-19 response while neighbourhood 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, the rights group alleged.

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, the group suggested. (Source: HRW)