“The Duterte administration utilizes ‘fake news’ as a tool to silence dissent by spreading lies using an army of trolls, to present ‘alternative facts’ and justify the repressive policies and programs of the government.”
By ALYSSA MAE CLARIN
MANILA— An associate professor of journalism said that government-run agencies and public officials have been peddling disinformation on matters pertaining to coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
Danilo Arao, associate editor of Bulatlat who also teaches journalism at the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication (UP-CMC), cited as an example an article published by the Philippine News Agency (PNA). The headline of the article claims that Philippine General Hospital health workers had been found negative for the COVID-19 virus even if those working at the PGH already stressed that they had not been tested yet.
“PNA edited the headline twice, but the revision is still very misleading,” Arao said in the first episode of Bulatlatan titled “‘Fake News’ in the time of COVID-19” aired via Zoom, on March 27.
The PNA’s story came in the heels of public demand for mass testing, as well as for protection of frontline health workers amid the lack of protective gear.
Arao also showed a news article quoting House Speaker Alan Cayetano’s ‘alarmist spin’ on COVID-19. Cayetano claimed that 35 million Filipinos would have been infected if it were not for the government’s response to the disease. The House speaker further said that 700,000 would have died.
“This (article) reflects the kind of officials we have,” said Arao, pointing out how Cayetano failed to mention who the “health expert close to the World Health Organization” was, which makes the statement seem dubious.
The report was published at around the time that Congress was deliberating on the proposed emergency powers which were eventually given to President Rodrigo Duterte.
Arao said journalists should challenge data provided by the politicians. He adding that the media should always refer to credible sources of information like the World Health Organization when reporting about the pandemic.
He also mentioned Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo’s unscientific claim that banana could treat COVID-19 and Manny Pacquiao’s statement saying that there was no COVID-19 yet when he attended a party hosted by Sen. Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III.
Arao pointed out that disinformation aims to discredit critical media, citing as an example two conflicting social media posts about the health condition of Sen. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. Arao said the one allegedly issued by Bongbong’s wife Atty. Liza Marcos was posted by @hackneyedutopia on Twitter and several journalists fell for it. He said that such incidents could be used to accuse media outfits of being “fake news peddlers.”
Arao said, “The Duterte administration utilizes ‘fake news’ as a tool to silence dissent by spreading lies using an army of trolls, to present ‘alternative facts’ and justify the repressive policies and programs of the government.”
Historically, Arao said that authoritarian governments are the ones who benefit from ‘fake news.’ Similar to how Germany’s Adolf Hitler had once referred to the media as the ‘lying press,’ both U.S. President Donald Trump and Duterte had openly discredited critical media outfits by calling them peddlers of ‘fake news.’
He noted that there have been a spike of ‘fake news” websites since Duterte assumed office.
“The sole purpose of these websites is to proliferate disinformation, making use of manipulated photos and videos of prominent people claiming this or that, when it truth they have not. These sites are usually most active in social media websites such as Facebook, and target the large number of Filipino users in the website,” Arao said.
He called on the public to be critical and check out multiple sources of information.
Arao also criticized the “fake news” provision in Republic Act 11469, saying it tramples upon press freedom and free expression in the guise of containing the COVID-19 pandemic.