Philippine President No. 1 Source of Fake News, Journalist Tells Senate Inquiry

Felipe Villamor
180130-PH-media-620.jpg Jover Laurio, a Filipina blogger behind the popular Pinoy Ako blog, speaks before a Philippine Senate hearing about fake news in Manila, Jan. 30, 2018.
Felipe Villamor/BenarNews

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte spewed most of the fake news in the country, a veteran journalist alleged Tuesday during a Senate committee probing the proliferation of propaganda and deliberate spread of misinformation online.

Ellen Tordesillas, a longtime newspaper columnist who founded the nonprofit website Vera Files, claimed that her independent online news portal had been fact-checking Duterte’s statements and found that much of what the Philippine leader said in public speeches was false.

“The number one source of fake news is President Duterte himself,” Tordesillas told a Senate hearing on fake news.

Duterte's chief spokesman, Martin Andanar, who also testified at the hearing, rejected Tordesillas’ allegation. He invited the journalist to the presidential palace to discuss the topic further, but Tordesillas urged Andanar to check her website, which lists alleged falsehoods from Duterte.

“Fake news are lies concocted to deceive the public,” she said. “They confuse the people and disempower them from making informed decisions.”

“In the hands of malevolent forces, it can inflict enormous harm to the people and to the country,” Tordesillas said.

She warned the lawmakers against coming up with legislation that would “undermine freedom of expression” and accused unnamed government officials of using taxpayers’ money to spread disinformation.

During his testimony, Andanar touched on the issue of enacting legislation to guard against fake news.

“While we understand that it is the prerogative of the legislature to enact new laws or amend existing ones, we humbly offer the proposition that in such cases, fake news be clearly defined with the assurance that the basic constitutional right to free speech and expression will not be curtailed,” he said.

Sen. Grace Poe, who chaired Tuesday’s hearing, emphasized that bloggers had the right to criticize but not to “misinform.”

“Opinions passed off as news are as deadly as lies,” she said, as she vowed to subpoena the Philippine representatives of Facebook and search engine Google to explore the roles played by social media giants in the distribution of fake stories.

“With fake news threatening our daily realities, I believe that legislative solutions exist,” she said, as she agreed with Tordesillas, who recommended a social media literacy campaign, especially one targeting young Filipinos.

“We need to look into setting parameters for official government platforms, so that these can’t be used as tools of hateful propaganda and misinformation,” Poe said.

World’s social-networking capital

A recent study released by Universal McCann, a New York-based advertising agency, described the Philippines as “the social-networking capital of the world” with almost 83 percent of 103 million Filipinos claiming to have social-media accounts.

Since he took power in June 2016, Duterte has turned social media platforms such as Facebook into a tool, where his social-media handlers, backed by their army of supporters and followers, defend the popular 74-year-old leader.

The “trolls” have become so effective that those who criticize the president or have opposing views become targets of vicious online threats, media analysts say.

Those who have methodically attacked Duterte’s opponents have become so popular that the president had appointed one of them, Mocha Uson, as an assistant secretary in the presidential media office.

Uson, a blogger known for posting her “sexy” dance videos on social media, has more than five million followers on Facebook and was appointed precisely for this reason, Andanar told the Senate hearing.

But Andanar said he had told Uson to separate her public persona from her official functions as a government official.

Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar (center) joins other officials during a Philippine Senate hearing on fake news, Jan. 30, 2018, in Manila. [Felipe Villamor/BenarNews]
Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar (center) joins other officials during a Philippine Senate hearing on fake news, Jan. 30, 2018, in Manila. [Felipe Villamor/BenarNews]


Media crackdown

The Senate held the hearing after Philippine media groups came together to denounce what they had described as a crackdown on the country’s free press, following the government’s closure-order two weeks ago against Rappler, an online news platform.

The order caused an uproar, with various media groups in the Philippines and in Asia, as well as the independent Philippine Commission on Human Rights, criticizing the move as an apparent attempt to muzzle the press.

The government has denied the allegation and said the closure order was slapped by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) because Rappler had violated a constitutional provision calling for all Philippine-based media companies to be owned by Filipinos.

Officials said Rappler had issued Philippine depository receipts (PDRs) allowing two U.S.-based groups to hold shares in the firm.

Rappler has protested the corporate regulator’s decision, saying that issuing PDRs did not mean that the American groups – the U.S.-based Omidyar Network and North Base Media – were allowed to dictate the website’s editorial policies. The website remains open while the order is on appeal.

Blogger: ‘My life is at risk’

At Monday’s  hearing, Senator Poe explained that it was convened after Jover Laurio, a previously unknown law student, revealed that she was behind the popular anti-Duterte Pinoy Ako Blog.

Laurio, 38, has emerged as one of Duterte’s most-popular critics online by using easily understood, street language in debunking wrong information peddled by pro-Duterte trolls. She now has about 130,000 unique online followers, and has become a strong voice for the opposition by correcting what she calls “distortion” of truths.

“This is not the time to be quiet. Our countrymen are dying every day. Fake news is everywhere from FB, YouTube, fake blog sites, from government officials,” Laurio testified on Tuesday. “Those criticizing the government are subjected to fake news – the women, politicians who disagree with the government, and the media, and the church.”

She said she would continue to debunk fake news and offer commentaries through her blog despite online threats against her.

“Even after I decided to come out, I had to still deal with death threats and hate messages every day,” she said. “It is difficult for an ordinary person like me. I am not protected by anyone. My life is at risk.”


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