PNP: Cavite mayor, 6others charged over fake ‘COVID-19’ news in big trouble

SEVEN persons including the mayor of Noveleta, Cavite who have been charged in court by the Philippine National Police Anti-Cybercrime Group (PNP-ACG) for spreading unvalidated reports or ‘fake news’ on social media about the COVID-19 virus which further triggered public fear and anxiety are in for a lot of trouble, the Journal Group was told.

The charges were filed as PNP chief, General Archie Francisco F. Gamboa, reiterated his appeal to netizens to stop spreading ‘fake news’ on social media which may only sow fear among citizens during this period of public health emergency saying the offense would send them to jail.

The Bayanihan to Heal as One Act recently signed by President Duterte gave the Commander-in-Chief additional powers to fight the emergency health crisis. The new measure punishes “individuals or groups creating, perpetrating or spreading false information regarding the COVID-19 crisis on social media and other platforms, such information having  no valid or beneficial effect on the population, and are clearly geared to promote chaos, panic, anarchy, fear, or confusion ; and those participating in cyber incidents that make use or take advantage of the current crisis situation to prey on the public through scams, phishing, fraudulent emails or other similar acts’

Under the Bayanihan Act, persons who will be found guilty of the above-named offense shall be punished with imprisonment of two months or a fine of not less than P10,000 but not more than P1 million or both. Such imprisonment and fine is at the discretion of the court.

Last Saturday, the PNP said that criminal charges have been filed against the mayor of Noveleta, Cavite  who was identified as allegedly behind the online circulation of fake COVID-19 reports in Cavite City which triggered panic among local residents.

Charged by the Regional Anti-Cybercrime Unit 4-A before the Cavite City Prosecutor’s Office for causing a COVID-19 scare in the province was Noveleta Mayor Dino Reyes Chua, said PNP spokesman, Brigadier General Bernard M. Banac.

The 39-year old politician who is said to be the owner of a Noveleta resort and a hotel in Makati City could not be immediately contacted for comment on the charges against him.

Banac said that apart from Mayor Chua, also charged by the RACU 4-A following a complaint from the Cavite City local government were two media personalities identified as Mario Batuigas, described as the owner of the Latigo News TV and Amor Virata, a vlogger/online reporter.

The three were charged with the following: violation of Section 6f of Republic Act 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal As One Act considering the continuing activity of the social media account used by Mayor Chua's alleged troll, Magie Bernal, to spread false information on COVID-19 in Cavite City; Article 154 of the Revised Penal Code or ‘unlawful use of means of publication and unlawful utterances; Section 4c4 of RA 1075 or Online Libel;  Sec 9b of RA 11332 or the “Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Health Concern Act,”  Article 14 (7) of Presidential Proclamation 922 or “crime committed on the occasion of a conflagration, shipwreck, earthquake, epidemic or other calamity or misfortune); and Section 25b of RA 10173 or the Data Privacy Act.

According to PNP Anti-Cybercrime Group director, Brig. Gen. Dennis P. Agustin, the RACU 4-A investigated the Cavite mayor following a complaint from the Cavite City local government that he was behind the spread of a fake information on the alleged 1st COVID-19 case in Cavite City.

Agustin said that early this month, a certain ‘Maggie Bernal’ posted on her Facebook account 10 pictures of suspected Persons Under Investigation or PUIs for COVID-19 in Cavite City. The same netizen even shared an unverified information that a COVID-19 patient has died at the Cavite Medical Center.

The official said that the same Facebook user likewise accused the Cavite City local government of violating its transparency program when it reportedly decided not to share the same information.

The PNP-ACG said that the Cavite City local government debunked the claims made by ‘Maggie Bernal’ citing a fact-checking made by the Rural Health Unit of the city.

In debunking the fake Facebook posts, the Cavity City government also said the photo of an alleged COVID-19 patient posted in the website of the Latigo News TV also turned out to have been that of a patient from Makati City and not from Cavite City.

Those Facebook posts triggered panic among residents of Cavite City and prompted the local government to take actions to identify the persons behind the hoax social media reports.

According to Agustin, Cybercops from the RACU 4-A discovered that a troll account of one ‘Maggie Bernal’ was originally named as ‘Angela Mae de Guzman’ which it said was allegedly ordered created by Chua in 2010 in order to attack their political opponents and create intrigues.

The PNP-ACG said that a person who claimed to be the one who created the troll account and acted as its ‘administrator’ had submitted a sworn affidavit regarding the involvement of the mayor in the creation of the fake account.

The RACU 4-A said that the Latigo News TV online news portal posted the same information relayed by ‘Maggie Bernal’ although it did not name the patient who supposedly died.

The PNP -ACG likewise filed criminal charges against four suspects for allegedly committing the same offense that caused panic amid the battle against the pandemic in Cabuyao City in Laguna and in Lapu-Lapu City in Cebu.

Gen. Gamboa said that the PNP-ACG is also currently tracing netizens who had spread ‘fake news’ about alleged robbery cases in McKinley Hill, Taguig City and Binondo, Manila as well as the alleged public unrest in San Andres, Manila two weeks ago.