Journalist imprisoned in Egypt warns vs laws against fake news

Patrick Quintos, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 12 2018 04:48 PM | Updated as of Sep 10 2018 04:18 PM

MANILA - Rushing legislation to fight fake news and disinformation may give people in power a tool to silence a free press, an Australian journalist, who was imprisoned in Egypt for 400 days, said on Monday. 

Speaking at the Democracy and Disinformation forum in Makati, journalist Peter Greste said that a rushed legislation in Egypt, which loosely defines terrorism, was the reason why he got locked up in the African country. 

"The government introduced a legislation that was, on the face of it, designed to stop the terrorists' ideology.... But the government defined terrorism so loosely. Later on, they branded the opposition as terrorists," he shared.

In the Philippines, discussions on how to fight fake news and disinformation have reached the Senate after a blogger allegedly claimed that some pro-administration lawmakers refused to sign a resolution against the killing of minors. The senators mentioned on the blogger's list cried "fake news."

"When you criminalize these kinds of transgressions, you give a lot of power to authorities to use them as a tool to silence free press," he said before students, bloggers, and journalists in attendance.

"I would caution against introducing -- in a rush, introducing laws, particularly draconian laws, to try to stop fake news," added the Al Jazeera journalist.

Greste said he is not against policy per se, but on how it defines false information. He added that laws on false information are also being discussed in Australia, but journalists are opposed to it because of its loose definition. 

"It is when the law is abused for political abuses, that's when it becomes a problem. It's the way the laws are drafted... Politicians can say, 'Anything I disagree with, anything that challenges my opinion is false news'," he told ABS-CBN News on the sidelines of the forum.

He said there are a lot of ways to fight fake news, like holding forums to discuss the issue. He said the government can help this campaign by creating an environment that would encourage legitimate reporting.

Greste, along with fellow Al Jazeera journalists Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed, were sentenced to 7 years imprisonment after an Egyptian court convicted them of helping a "terrorist organisation" in a widely criticized case.

"You cannot have a strong democracy unless you have strong journalism. We have to remind people that we have a responsibility to do and to do that job well," he stressed.