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CEBU, Philippines – The Cebu City government filed a formal complaint before the Office of the City Prosecutor against two people allegedly involved in the operations of a contested Facebook page, “Cebu Updates,” on Monday, February 5.
Estela Grace Rosit, head of the Cebu City Public Information Office (PIO), submitted the complaint for illegal access and computer-related identity theft, based on the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, against Erwin Dela Cerna and Christian Tura.
The cybercrime law defines computer-related identity theft as the “intentional acquisition, use, misuse, transfer, possession, alteration or deletion of identifying information belonging to another, whether natural or juridical, without right.” The offense is punishable by a fine of at least P200,000 and/or imprisonment.
Rosit said the page was being used for bashing local officials, including Cebu Mayor Mike Rama.
Rosit, in her affidavit, stated that the Cebu Updates page has become a tool for propaganda, “ruthlessly manipulated” to malign Cebu City government officials.
The local government asserted its ownership of the Cebu Updates page, stating that it used to serve as its official PIO page.
Dela Cerna, who hosts the program Ratsada on the Cebu Updates page, and Tura have yet to respond to the complaint as of posting time despite messages sent to the Facebook account. Rappler will update this story once they issue statements.
Rappler also tried to get comments from individuals who had posted on Cebu Updates, including Jun Tumulak, Dagmasla Zeus Sebastian, and lawyer Floro Casas, who served as city administrator during the Labella administration, but they have not responded.
In a July 23, 2023 column for SunStar, Pachico Seares said Casas admitted to being an administrator of the Cebu Updates page.
In the same column, Casas was quoted as saying that Cebu Updates is a “privately created social media site that publishes official events and announcements,” and the page “is, or was, not owned by the Cebu City Government.”
Mayor Rama, in a news conference on Tuesday, reiterated their determination to pursue those who illegally access the page, stating, “We will never stop until we uncover all of them.”
Jerone Castillo, former city attorney and current Cebu City budget officer, said they plan to file a cyber libel complaint.
In a Facebook post on Tuesday, Cebu Updates stated that it would remain vigilant and continue to keep an eye on City Hall.
“Karon nga gikiha mi sa Cebu City Hall, dili mi mahadlok, mas magbantay pa mi sa ilang kaboang,” it said.
(Now that we have been sued by Cebu City Hall, we are not afraid; we will be even more vigilant against their shenanigans.)
Lawyer Kristine Centino of the Cebu City Legal Office, said the local government filed the complaint to ensure that those who “illegally accessed” the Facebook page are punished.
“We aim to establish that this property belongs to the city government. Using the property of the Cebu City government without permission is essentially considered illegal access to the property. The goal is… to regain possession of the page because the rightful owner is really the Cebu City government,” she said in Cebuano.
Lawyer Shana Alexandra Perez of the City Legal Office, said they asked the Anti-Cybercrime Unit to help investigate, and they made sure that “everything was well-researched and investigated” since 2022.
Officials said the investigation led authorities to Dela Cerna and Tura.
Centino said they were also getting in touch with Facebook’s parent company, Meta Platforms, to contest the page’s ownership.
In July 2023, Castillo and City Administrator Collin Rosell called on the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) in Cebu to investigate those behind the Cebu Updates posts.
The Cebu Updates responded that same month, stating that it was “merely a messenger for the people,” and its goal was to “bridge the gap between you (the people) and our city officials, ensuring transparency and accountability in governance.”
One post addressed to Castillo read that “your attempts to deter our work will not hinder us from fulfilling our duty to the public. Cebu Updates will continue to be steadfast in providing reliable and impartial news for the people.”
History of name changes
Cebu Update’s Page Transparency section shows the history of its name changes, tracing to its original identity as the Cebu City Public Information Office Page in 2012.
Cebu Updates’ page transparency section shows subsequent name changes, coinciding with transitions from Rama to former mayor Tomas Osmena, and later, during the tenure of the late mayor Edgardo Labella. It changed its name to Cebu Updates only on January 5, 2022, months after the death of Labella in November 2021.
The Cebu Updates Facebook page posts diverse content that can be categorized into live streaming by its “talents,” shared posts about current affairs and entertainment from credible media entities, various media service posts, announcements, and criticisms on the current city administration.
Cebu Updates, with 242,000 likes and 339,000 followers, identifies itself as a media and news company, with an address at the North Reclamation Area in Cebu City.
As of February 6, 2024, its page transparency section shows at least seven people from the Philippines managing the page. – Rappler.com
Wenilyn Sabalo is a community journalist currently affiliated with SunStar Cebu and is an Aries Rufo Journalism fellow of Rappler for 2023-2024.