‘Emergency’ SMS for election campaign? A refresher on disaster alerts act

October 6, 2021 - 4:35 PM
Artwork by Rhovin Luke Maglaqui

Some Filipinos on Wednesday received text messages of support to a presidential candidate in the form of emergency alerts.

According to some reports, these messages were received after Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos formalized his candidacy for presidency for the 2022 national elections on October 6.

TV5 reporter Greg Gregorio shared a video on how the emergency phone alert appeared on his smartphone.

Another reported that those who received these messages were the ones present at the Sofitel Hotel, the venue for the filing of COCs.

The text message bears the subject: “Emergency Alert: Severe.”

Its body, on the other hand, contained message of support for Marcos with the hashtag #BBM2022.

Marcos is running under the Partido Federal ng Pilipinas, the political party his father Ferdinand Marcos founded.

What are emergency phone alerts for?

An emergency text or mobile disaster alert is a type of notification that Republic Act 10639 or “The Free Mobile Disaster Alerts Act” mandated mobile phone service providers to send “in the event of an impending tropical storm, typhoon, tsunami, or other calamities.”

With the help of the National Telecommunications Commission, some government agencies covered by this mandate are:

  1. The National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC)
  2. The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA)
  3. The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS)

Section 4 also stated that the alerts should only contain up-to-date information from these government agencies to be sent to residents in affected areas.

“The alerts shall include contact information of local government units and other agencies required to respond to the situation. The alerts may contain other relevant information such as, but not limited to, evacuation areas, relief sites and pick-up points,” it said.

The law was signed by late former president Benigno Aquino III in 2014.

It was the year after Super Typhoon Yolanda wrecked parts of the country. Filipinos then used social media to locate their loved ones.

RELATED: NDRRMC’s text alerts (with warning tone) for threats of ‘Ulysses’ gets local Twitter talking anew 

Under section 6 of the act, any wrongful use of this disaster alert system is punishable by law, wherein:

“Any person who gives false or misleading data or information or willfully or through gross negligence, conceals or falsifies a material fact, in any investigation, inquiry, study, or other proceeding held pursuant to this Act.”

Penalties range from imprisonment between two and six months, and with a fine between P1,000 and P10,000.

NDRRMC: ‘We did not issue this type of messaging’

NDRRMC executive director Ricardo Jalad later denied involvement with the emergency-like pro-Marcos notifications.

‘Big NO! Ours go through the telcos. They will surely not accept that from us. We are allowed only by RA 10639 to send alert messages on impending hazards,” Jalad was quoted as saying.

He also noted that this could be an arrangement between private entities and telecommunication providers.

The NDRRMC later issued a statement about the incident.

The agency clarified that it did not issue this type of messaging to the public.

“We have received info about an alleged emergency warning received by certain people in a particular location about the candidacy of a certain personality. We wish to clarify that the NDRRMC does not issue this type of message for distribution to the public through our Telco partners,” it said.

The agency further stressed that it only conforms to the prescription of the Free Mobile Disaster Alerts Law.

It also cited rainfall warnings due to weather disturbances as the only type of content they distribute to the public.

The council is currently coordinating with its partner telecommunication providers and the NTC to probe the text blast in the guise of emergencies.

“We trust that the National Telecommunications Commission will be looking into this matter. Our people can be assured that the NDRRMC reserves the use of its warning systems for their mandated purpose only, which is to provide proper and timely warning to our people regarding natural hazards,” it said.

Comelec: ‘No penalty under electoral laws’

Meanwhile, the Commission on Elections, said that the use of emergency channels for campaigning are legally allowed under electoral laws.

Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez tweeted this after receiving the same pro-Marcos notification.

Jimenez also attached a screenshot of these emergency alerts on his tweet.

“There is no penalty specifically for the use of emergency channels for campaigning – at least not under electoral laws,” Jimenez said.

“However, it can be assumed that the emergency alert system operates under guidelines that would prevent the use of the system for non-emergency uses,” he added.

Jimenez, however, described the use of an emergency alert system for propaganda as “ill-advised.”

“While there is no doubt that this use of the emergency alert system is ill-advised at best, whether or not criminal liability will attach to those who are behind this move will have to be determined by the appropriate agencies of government,” the poll body official said.