Philippines

Duterte’s Sidekick Is Having His Online Critics Investigated Amid Fears of Gov’t Abuse of Cybercrime Laws

Philippine senator Bong Go, a close Duterte ally, requested authorities open investigations against several online commenters under the country’s controversial cyberlibel laws.
17 July 2020, 2:26pm
bong duterte afp
Philippine Senator Christopher "Bong" Go (L) sits in on a call between President Rodrigo Duterte (R) and Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2017. Handout / PPD / AFP

Christopher "Bong" Go, a Philippine senator and a close confidante of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, has requested authorities investigate several of his critics under the country’s controversial cyberlibel laws, leading to several being subpoenaed—and to a chorus of even stronger criticism online.

Senator Go, in a Thursday statement, said he had been a “victim of fake and malicious news,” and had asked the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to investigate specific social media posts critical of him, claiming that they could qualify as libel under cybercrime laws.

Among those subpoenaed was a college student accused of “sharing a post on social media possibly containing fake news against the Senator,” according to a Senate press release. The NBI invited the student in for questioning, and the student complied, according to Super Radyo dzBB.

By Friday morning, as news of the subpoenas spread, the hashtag #TanginaMoBongGo—which literally translates to “Son of a Bitch Bong Go”—was trending on Twitter, with netizens slamming the senator for what they characterized as his heavy-handed response to online criticism. By Friday evening, there were more than 65,000 posts with the tag.

According to a photo of a subpoena letter from the NBI posted by reporter Nikolo Baua of news outlet ABS-CBN, the complaint was filed by the law firm Uy Cruz Lo & Associates, based in Davao City, hometown of Go and Duterte.

The letter asked the subpoenaed person to appear at the Office of Cybercrime Division on Thursday to “give evidence in a certain investigation to be held at that time and place.”

Baua reported that the student’s lawyer declined to be interviewed, but confirmed that the senator’s lawyers filed the complaint.

This comes just weeks after veteran journalist and 2018 Time Person of the Year Maria Ressa was famously convicted of cyberlibel under the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 in June, in a case built on technicalities that raised questions as to scope of the law, and which many decried as an attack on press freedom.

Go, in his Thursday statement, maintained that slander and fake news were different from legitimate criticisms based on facts.

“Apart from the right of man to speak freely, our democracy is also part of the right of the person aggrieved by a lie to protect himself according to the law," he said.

He added that the NBI had a mandate to investigate violations of the cybercrime law, saying that anyone could report cases to find out if there was a violation of the law, and to verify who made the post.

"For critics, if what you say is true, continue with it. We respect your rights and opinions. If you think you have done nothing illegal, you have nothing to worry about or fear," he said.

In addition to the subpoenaed student, Rappler reported that another subpoena had been sent to another person by the same law firm. The person, who was not named, confirmed to Rappler that he also shared a post critical of Go.

Rappler noted that among three others who received similar subpoenas, none were told which post triggered the subpoena, nor were they told that Go was the complainant.

So far, details of the purportedly offending posts have not been disclosed.

The NBI also announced today that there has been an increase in cyberlibel complaints filed to the Cybercrime Division in recent months, according to PTV News.

NBI Cybercrime Division Chief Vic Lorenzo said that the subpoenas allow for the verification of the complaint and are part of the due process that allows the defendant to be heard and validated as the person who posted the material in question.

They also noted that complaints had come from government officials, including Go and Vice President Leni Robredo.

But they might not be the last to take advantage of the contentious law. Just yesterday, following a Rappler report alleging that the Marcos family had approached Cambridge Analytica to help “rebrand” the controversial clan—members of which have been accused, and convicted, of state corruption on a massive scale—a spokesman for former Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. said he was “exploring the legal options to fight this injustice.”

The family—whose patriarch, Ferdinand Sr., ruled the Philippines as a dictator for years—accused Rappler of “resort[ing] to peddling lies and fake news” in a move “to besmirch” the family’s reputation.

News of Go’s complaints, meanwhile, follows other similar recent cases. CNN Philippines reported in April that within the span of a few days, 17 private citizens were summoned for violating a different law prohibiting posting false information on the internet.

They similarly were not told which posts were in question, with one lawyer saying that his client had difficulty preparing for the probe without knowing what the complaint was about.

On April 1, one person was subpoenaed for complaining about government spending during the pandemic under Article 154 of the Revised Penal Code, which forbids publication of “any false news which may endanger the public order, or cause damage to the interest or credit of the State."

Earlier this week, on the other side of the political spectrum, Kabataan Partylist Representative Sarah Elago also asked the NBI Cybercrime Division to investigate 30 posts against her and other student leaders, alleging they incited violence against them or falsely accused them of communist sympathies, reported Baua.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.