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Saturday, 8 April, 2000, 14:06 GMT 15:06 UK
Filipinos' phone habit angers Estrada
Joseph Estrada
Critics accuse Estrada's government of incompetence and corruption
By John McLean in Manila

The use of mobile phones to exchange text messages has become a matter of political controversy in the Philippines.

The government there is worried that this form of communication is being used to spread false rumours and rude jokes about President Joseph Estrada in an effort to destabilise his beleaguered administration.

Particularly worrying for the government is the fact that the Philippines is one of the world's biggest users of text messaging.


Erap [Estrada's nickname] is dead. Let us pray that this is not just another texter's joke

A joke circulating in Manila
The Philippines' main mobile phone companies have taken out full-page advertisements in national newspapers pleading with their subscribers to be more responsible in using text messaging.

This follows a public furore last weekend when text messages began appearing on mobile phones saying: "The Pope is dead; pass it on."

It was apparently an April Fool's prank; but the false rumour spread at the speed of light and it upset many people in this predominantly Roman Catholic country.

Political opposition

What upset the government more was another false rumour spread by text messages, that Mr Estrada was on the point of being overthrown by a military coup.

The service is also being used to peddle jokes about the president - jokes that his spokesman describes as vicious.

One joke doing the rounds in Manila goes: "The NPA [Communist rebels] have kidnapped Erap. They are demanding a large ransom and, if it is not paid, they are threatening to release their hostage."

The government is worried that this technology is contributing to growing popular opposition to the Estrada administration, which critics accuse of incompetence and corruption.

Fashionable

Filipinos have taken to text messaging with extraordinary enthusiasm, making it more fashionable here than almost anywhere else in the world.

Pro-government politicians have been calling for action, but there is little that can be done because the law prohibits anyone from monitoring, let alone censoring, any form of telecommunication.

Even so, the mobile phone companies are clearly feeling the political pressure; hence their appeal to customers to refrain from using their mobile phones to drive the rumour mill.

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See also:

08 Jan 00 | Asia-Pacific
Philippines reform package shelved
20 Aug 99 | Asia-Pacific
'People power' rally in Philippines
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