CEBU CITY, Philippines – New York-based international organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the Cebu City government to drop charges against local artist Maria Victoria “Bambi” Beltran who was arrested on Sunday, April 19, in Cebu City. (READ: Cebu film writer arrested over Facebook post about coronavirus in Sitio Zapatera)
She was arrested for making a sarcastic Facebook post about the coronavirus situation in a sitio of 9,000, which saw the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the region.
The statement also mentioned the arrest of ex-Anakpawis congressman Ariel Casilao and activists who were going to deliver relief goods in Norzagaray, Bulacan. Casilao, who was charged with sedition, and the Anakpawis members had been released after posting bail.
“The government should signal that it’s taking the health crisis seriously. It could start by dropping the charges against Casilao, his colleagues, and Beltran, and ending politically motivated investigations of people’s reading materials and social media posts,” HRW said in a statement on Thursday, April 23.
The international human rights watchdog said that the government was “misusing” COVID-19 laws on “fake news” against critics.
“Philippine authorities are increasingly using the COVID-19 pandemic and new public health restrictions as an excuse to charge political opponents and activists with criminal offenses,” HRW said in its statement.
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) echoed the call to drop charges vs Beltran in a statement released on April 21.
“The Government of the Philippines should immediately release Dakila member Maria Victoria ‘Bambi’ Beltran, drop all charges against her and respect the freedom of expression,” FORUM-ASIA said.
They said that they were seeing a “heightened use of repressive laws” to target human rights defenders, under the guise of a COVID-19 response,” they said.
“Along with the Government’s intensified military and police response, these attacks on freedom of expression create a climate of fear for human rights defenders and the general public, and reflect the growing authoritarianism of Duterte’s regime,” the Asian human rights group added.
Beltran is charged for violating the cybercrime law, the fake ‘news’ provision of the Bayanihan Heal As One Law, and the law on mandatory reporting of certain diseases. (READ: Duterte’s special powers bill punishes fake news by jail time, up to P1-M fine)
While the emergency law called “Bayanihan Heal As One” punished “fake news”, former Supreme Court spokesperson and human rights lawyer Ted Te previously told Rappler that a subparagraph on the punishment of fake news “would be void.”
There is no law that punishes “fake news” nor does any law exist that defines it.
”Since there is no law that criminizalizes or defines fake news as a crime, and the special powers law does not also define what fake news is, it cannot be criminalized. That would be void,” said Te.
‘Arrests not default to dissent’
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) also expressed concern over Beltran’s arrest.
“A fully functional democratic society should be able to allow the reasonable exercise of free speech and expression as a means to participate in matters concerning public life,” the CHR said in a statement.
“Arrests should never be made as a default response to dissent. Governments, especially in localities, should be able to engage in a healthy dialogue to enlighten its citizens instead of triggering fear,” they added.
Beltran is the owner of Kukuk’s Nest, a bar and café popular with the local arts community.
Beltran is known for her short stories, screenplays, poems, and performances in Visayan independent film.
Beltran was arrested at 12:30 in the morning without a warrant and detained at the Police Regional Office-7 for 2 nights.
After Cebu City Mayor Edgar Labella called the post “fake”, fellow artists came to Beltran’s defense and said that it was sarcasm or satire. (READ: Labella on arrest of Cebu artist Bambi Beltran: ‘It’s nothing personal’)
Other Facebook posts
On Wednesday, April 23, Cordova town Mayor Mary Therese Sitoy-Cho asked 3 police officers to go to the house of a resident who tagged the mayor on Facebook to address concerns that a supermarket was allegedly understocked.
Cho denied that the police were sent to intimidate the resident. The mayor said that the visit was to “validate” that it was the resident who really made the post.
According to a report in state-run Philippine News Agency last March, Cebu Governor Gwen Garcia have begun summoning Cebu residents for their allegedly “fake news” posts.
On March 19, Garcia vowed to sue a Facebook user who allegedly spoke about a conspiracy theory in a private group, claiming that 10 people had died from the coronavirus and that the city government tried to cover it up.
Focus on the outbreak
HRW said that since the passage of the Bayanihan law, authorities have investigated dozens and arrested them for posts the government deems ‘fake news.”
“Although ‘fake news’ is not in any Philippine jurisprudence, the COVID-19 law does criminally penalize spreading ‘false information’ related to the pandemic,” HRW said.
Local group Movement Against Tyranny said that the government should focus on responding to the coronavirus outbreak.
“What we need is an efficient government willing and able to address the medical and socio-economic needs of its constituents, not a leviathan very eager to maintain its posture to the extent of persecuting ordinary citizens,” MAT- Cebu said in a statement on April 20.
The new cases drove up the number of coronavirus cases in Cebu City to 312 from a total of 173 as of Wednesday night, April 22.
Beltran’s lawyers on Tuesday, April 21, said that they would file charges against Labella for violating her rights when police arrested her without a warrant and spoke to her without the presence of her legal counsel. (READ: Cebu artist Bambi Beltran to sue Labella for violating her rights) – Rappler.com
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