17 subpoenas issued by NBI over fake news issues amid COVID-19 crisis: official

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 02 2020 05:11 PM | Updated as of Apr 02 2020 05:19 PM

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MANILA - The National Bureau of Investigation has issued 17 subpoenas and anticipates to send out more over acts of misinformation by certain individuals amid the novel coronavirus crisis, its cybercrime chief said Thursday.

"So far, we have sent 17 subpoenas. And we are anticipating we are going to further issue some subpoenas in relation to the investigation that we are conducting, in relation to fake news," Victor Lorenzo, head of the NBI Cybercrime Division, told ANC.

Human rights lawyer Chel Diokno earlier said the NBI was sending out subpoena to netizens who air their sentiments on government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lorenzo said his division has a mandate to monitor social media for fake news, and conduct investigation.

"First, we have to determine the author of those fake news, and we have to determine if it is indeed fake news. And that will be the time that we're going to issue a subpoena, of course, (for them) to air their side," he explained.

Denying insinuations that the NBI is suppressing freedom of expression or airing of opinion on social media, Lorenzo said the agency's focus is on the Revised Penal Code, "wherein any publication of false news which will have the tendency to endanger public order will be in violation of Article 154."

"We are not focusing on comments (on social media). We are focusing on materials online that is in violation of Article 154 of the Revised Penal Code," he said, particularly on "factual error or malicious intent to populate false news that could endanger the public order."

Article 154 of the RPC pertains to "unlawful use of means of publication and unlawful utterances" by the following:

- any person who publish false news which may endanger the public order, or cause damage to the interest or credit of the state
- any person who by the same means, or by words, utterances or speeches shall encourage disobedience to the law or to the constituted authorities or praise, justify, or extol any act punished by law
- any person who shall maliciously publish or cause to be published any official resolution or document without proper authority, or before they have been published officially
- any person who shall print, publish, or distribute or cause to be printed, published, or distributed books, pamphlets, periodicals, or leaflets which do not bear the real printer's name, or which are classified as anonymous

"That's our main focus right now: false news related to COVID-19 that will have the tendency to endanger the public order. We focus our investigation on that, that's why we sent subpoenas," Lorenzo said.

Among the fake news the agency are looking into are the post about the supposed extension of the Luzon lockdown, another one on the purported nationwide lockdown, and a publication saying that the military will spray chemicals all over Luzon.

"We issued subpoenas to the authors of these false news," he said.

Lorenzo said the NBI will go after anyone, regardless of their political affiliation, whether a public official or an ordinary citizen.

Reacting to a copy of the subpoena that circulated on Twitter earlier in the day, Lorenzo said that document was issued "because that individual... sent a communication via social media, saying that the government is actually buying private helicopters worth P2 billion in spite of the fact that we are in a crisis right now."

"Our intention why we issued subpoena to that individual is to first, to determine whether there's a basis for his post. And at the same time, he could be a whistleblower if he knows someone who is a public official that spend P2 billion in spite of the fact we are in crisis," he said.

"He could be a very good source of information, that’s why we sent a subpoena--as part of the due process and we would want to get his side."

Those who have received a subpoena may contact his division through a private message, email or phone call, Lorenzo said.

"If we feel it’s a legitimate explanation, then we’re not going to file charges against them," he said.

The division needs "more manpower" as it is also addressing online scams related to COVID-19 donations, Lorenzo added.