Former Sol-Gen: Senate should summon blogger Bruce Rivera

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, October 11) — Pro-administration social media personality Bruce Rivera should also testify in the Senate's probe on fake news, a former solicitor-general said Wednesday.

Florin Hilbay told CNN Philippines that lawyer Rivera, who blasted other pro-administration bloggers in a viral video and accused them of spreading fake news and inciting a "turf war," might hold information the Senate could use.

"I think maybe Bruce Rivera should be called also because he made some statements that might shed light into this government propaganda — whether or not they're being paid with public funds or by politicians," said Hilbay, who also appeared at the Senate hearing on fake news on October 4.

In Rivera's video, which has since been taken down, he said a faction of pro-Duterte bloggers including RJ Nieto of Thinking Pinoy and Sass Roganda Sasot were responsible for spreading a false rumor that Vice President Leni Robredo was pregnant.

"Yung buntis si Leni, di ba kayo naglabas nun?" said Rivera. "The truth of the matter is, may fake news kayo, may fake news yung kabila."

[Translation: The rumor that Leni Robredo was pregnant, didn't that come from you? The truth of the matter is, you have your fake news, they have theirs.]

Rivera also called them "bullies" and emphasized he did not receive money from politicians, prompting some netizens to believe Nieto and Sasot were paid by public funds.

"Huwag tayong magkunwaring para sa bayan kayo kasi sa totoo lang, magkaalam na kung magkaalaman... ang masasabi ko sarili ko ay hindi po ako bayad," said Rivera.

"Hindi ako binayaran ng kahit sinong tao... kahit sinong pulitiko, hindi ako binayaran ng pamasahe ko na pumunta ng Pilipinas, kaya utang na loob, huwag mong gawing isyu ito," he added.

[Translation: Let's not pretend you're for the country because the truth is, I'll spill the beans if I have to... I can really say I'm not paid. I haven't been paid by anyone, not any politician, not for my transportation going to the Philippines, so don't make this an issue.]

Rivera, however, later clarified that he was not implying that government money funded the bloggers.

"Oo, may hidwaan kami ni Miss Sasot at Mr. Nieto pero wala kayong pakialam sa away [namin] kasi walang pera ng bayan ang ginamit," he said in a post addressing the media.

[Translation: Yes, I don't get along Ms. Sasot and Mr. Nieto, but don't meddle because public funds weren't used.]

He also said Hilbay was mistaken, adding, "Walang makinarya ng fake news si Duterte. Paano kami maging makinarya kung kami nga di nagkakasundo once in a while?"

[Translation: Duterte has no fake news machinery. How could there be, if we don't even get along every once in a while?]

Hilbay first posted the suggestion on his Facebook page on Monday, saying Rivera revealed inside information "about the potential public nature of the funds being used to feed government propagandists."

Rivera was among those accredited to cover the Association of Southeast Asian Nation Foreign Ministers' Meeting and Related Meetings. He has since posted that he would deactivate his social media account on October 15.

He is most known for being the lawyer of so-called pork barrel queen Janet Napoles.

Hilbay: Senate hearing should focus on gov't officials

The Senate opened its probe on fake news last October 4, tapping different bloggers, mediamen, and social media personalities. They also tackled posts made against the administration.

Related: Senate wants to subpoena founder of anti-government blogs

Hilbay, however, thinks that summons for government critics, who are private citizens, are not necessary.

"When it comes to private speakers, you have the libel laws for that. You don't want people who already have access to government information... like senators for example, going after private persons whether anonymous or not," said Hilbay.

He hoped the hearing would concentrate more on legislation and the accountability of government officers spreading fake news, he added.

"I was really hoping that they would focus on legislation, that's why I came prepared with a proposal," said Hilbay. "Given [some personalities'] relationship with government, I think they should have been the real focus of the investigation."

Hilbay pitches independent fact-checking agency

The former solicitor-general is also fielding an idea to combat fake news spread by public officials — an independent government agency that calls them out.

Hilbay called out "disinformation [and] dishonesty" in government.

"The only way to respond to that is by creating an entity, a public entity called the Institute for the Integrity of Information," he said.

He said the body should be composed of academics, media specialists, information technology experts, people who are not appointed by the President.

However, he clarified the institution would not target the press or private citizens.

"People are a bit worried at the possibility of suppressing speech, so I need to emphasize that this is not directed towards the press. This is not directed towards citizens who want to exercise their freedom of speech. This is solely directed at the government," Hilbay said.

He shared the idea on his social media accounts, where it garnered over a thousand reactions and shares.

 

While no lawmakers have expressed interest in taking up the idea, Hilbay said it was mentioned to the Senate Committee on Public information and is now "part of the records."

"I imagine if there are workforces in the Senate looking for possible solutions, they will find it there," he said.

Public officials such as Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson and Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre have been tagged in spreading false and misleading information.

Uson, whose Facebook page has over 5 million followers, has had a series of social media gaffes — from sharing fake news, outdated stories, and inaccurate photos. However, she maintains her blog is separate from her work as assistant secretary.

Related: Senators urge Mocha Uson: Use your power wisely

Aguirre was criticized for sharing with the media a misleading photo accusing opposition lawmakers of having a hand in the Marawi siege. The photo was later proven to have been taken years ago in Iloilo.

The Department of Foreign Affairs also hired as a consultant Nieto, whose site was marked as the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines as "carrying fake or unverified content." Nieto has over 400,000 followers on Facebook.

Government agencies such as the Philippine News Agency and the Presidential Communications Office have also been under fire for other gaffes, including a misplaced photo and a video promoting martial law.