Cavite town mayor faces criminal charges for fake reports on COVID-19 case

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Erratum: The first version of this story stated that a court case has been filed against Noveleta Mayor Dino Reyes Chua. We have corrected this mistake in the article below. The charges were only filed before the Cavite City Prosecutor's Office. We apologize for this mistake.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 28) — The Philippine National Police has filed criminal charges against a town mayor in Cavite province, and two other people over the alleged spread of fake reports on a COVID-19 case that caused panic in Cavite City.

The PNP in a statement on Saturday announced that its Anti-Cybercrime Unit in the Calabarzon region filed the charges on Friday before the Cavite City Prosecutor's Office against Noveleta Mayor Dino Reyes Chua.

It stemmed from a complaint from the Cavite City government that Chua was behind the spread of fake information on an alleged first coronavirus case in the city.

Also facing charges are Mario Batuigas, owner of online site Latigo News TV and Amor Virata, identified as a vlogger and online reporter.

Their charges include violation of Republic Act no. 11469 or the "Bayanihan to Heal As One Act," which was passed recently in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the law, those who create, perpetrate, or spread false information on the COVID-19 crisis shall face two months in jail and/or a fine of up to ₱1 million.

This is the first reported case against a local-level chief executive under the new law, which seeks to curtail the spread of "fake news" amid the COVID-19 crisis.

The PNP said that early this month, a Facebook account with the name Maggie Bernal posted 10 photos of suspected persons under investigation for coronavirus infection in Cavite City, adding that one patient died of the viral disease at the Cavite Medical Center. The account accused the local government of Cavite City of lack of transparency.

"But the local government debunked the claims of the account and proved that the information is false based on the fact-checking of the Rural Health Unit of Cavite City," the PNP said in its statement.

The city's health unit said the photo was actually that of a COVID-19 patient in Makati City.

"The unverified post has caused panic among citizens of the city," the PNP quoted its Anti-Cybercrime Group as saying.

Authorities found that the Maggie Bernal page was a "troll account... created by Chua in 2010 and was used to attack their political opponents and create intrigues based on the affidavit of a witness who was the creator and former administrator of the troll account."

Cases were also filed against Chua and his co-accused for online libel, unlawful use of means of publication and unlawful utterances, and vioation of the Data Privacy Act and the Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Health Concern Act.

The Philippines now has 803 confirmed COVID-19 cases. Of this number, 54 have died while 31 have recovered.