Bangkok, April 3, 2020 — Cavite City authorities in the Philippines should withdraw their criminal complaints against journalists Mario Batuigas and Amor Virata, and refrain from threatening journalists covering the COVID-19 pandemic, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On March 27, the Philippine National Police filed a criminal complaint against Batuigas, owner of the Latigo News TV news portal, and Virata, an independent online reporter, for spreading “false information” about the country’s COVID-19 crisis, Rappler reported. The police complaint was filed in response to a complaint issued by the government of Cavite City, according to that report.
Authorities alleged that the journalists violated several criminal statues, including Section 6(6) of the newly enacted emergency Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, which criminalizes the dissemination of “false news,” according to CNN Philippines.
Convictions under the new law, passed by Congress on March 24 to give the president emergency powers to contain the nation’s coronavirus outbreak, allow for two-month prison terms and one million peso ($19,600) fines, according to CPJ research.
“Authorities should immediately withdraw their criminal complaints against journalists Mario Batuigas and Amor Virata,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “The government must not chill potentially vital reporting on the public health crisis by pursuing criminal charges against journalists or news outlets.”
The complaint stemmed from social media posts by Noveleta Mayor Dino Reyes Chua, whom authorities allege had posted rumors about coronavirus patients at a hospital in Cavite City, according to Rappler. The complaint alleges that Virata and Batuigas spread the information from Chua’s post, according to that report.
Authorities also filed a criminal complaint against Chua, according to CNN Philippines.
The Cavite City Government office did not immediately reply to CPJ’s emailed request for comment.