freedom of expression

‘Satire is protected speech,’ says Cebu judge in dismissed case of Bambi Beltran

Ryan Macasero

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

Here are the highlights of the judge's decision

Every 3rd or 4th week of September, Cebu celebrates press freedom week.

The decision to dismiss the charges (based on the “false information” provision of the 2020 Bayanihan Law) against Cebu artist Bambi Beltran spoke to the importance of protecting not only the rights of journalists, but also of individuals to speak freely on issues that matter to them – including local issues.

For Judge Yvonne Artiaga of the 7th Municipal Trial Court in Cebu, the way they choose to express themselves is just as important. She dismissed what is probably the most high profile free speech case in Cebu in recent years.

Artiaga was categorical in her dismissal order. “Satire is a form of protected speech.”

Must Read

Court dismisses cases against Cebu artist Bambi Beltran

Court dismisses cases against Cebu artist Bambi Beltran
What happened?

Beltran was arrested for posting a status regarding the surge of COVID-19 cases in Sitio Zapatera in Cebu City in April. She posted on Facebook: “9,000+ new cases (all from Zapatera) of COVID-19 in Cebu City in one day. We are now the epicenter in the whole solar system.”

Must Read

Cebu City Mayor Edgardo Labella shared Beltran’s post on his official Facebook page, and warned her that she would face jail time for allegedly spreading “fake news.”

Hours after Beltran’s post, the artist and business owner was arrested without a warrant and detained for 3 days pending booking.

Must Read

Here are some important themes on free speech from Artiaga’s decision.

The Facebook post was ‘satire,’ not ‘fake news’

The wording of the post was basis for the judge to dismiss the case.

Artiaga wrote in her decision, “This court, instead, finds the public post as satire. The phrase ‘epicenter of the whole solar system’ is a dead giveaway.”

Artiaga pointed out that the post was consistent with what was being reported in local news outlets at the time, therefore the post was neither “false information” nor “misinformation.”

It also said Beltran made the conclusions after the city’s health department itself declared the entire sitio in question “presumed infected” and only clarified what they meant by it after Beltran had already been arrested.

Satire is protected speech

“To reiterate, the satirical post is constitutionally protected speech under the well-entrenched Bill of Rights provision in our Constitution,” the decision read.

“The Bill of Rights is a ‘Child of Enlightenment’ they say. Any court Conscious of its mandate to uphold the Constitution should and must wield it as a shield against any means to silence political and social criticism, a practice eerily reminiscent of the official excesses during the ‘Dark Ages’ of our own history not so long ago.”

Courts should protect citizens from ‘prior restraint’

She quoted the Supreme Court’s decision penned by the former Chief Justice Reynato Puno in Chavez vs Gonzalez, NTC: “[a] blow too soon struck for freedom is preferred than a blow too late’ timely reminds us that we must learn from our history, otherwise we will be bound to repeat it.”

This referred to a 2008 decision by the High Court which ruled that threats by former justice secretary Raul Gonzales to sue journalists – specifically those who release the audio pertaining to the “Hello, Garci” scandal during Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s presidency – constitutes prior restraint:

“It is the liberty to discuss any matter of public concern without restraint or punishment, except in instances when its restraint is justified to avoid a danger grave and imminent to public safety,” Artiaga said.

Free speech is accorded with ‘utmost deference’

The judge cited another jurisprudence that requires government to exercise greater respect for the right to free speech.

“Even during the dark days of our history, the Supreme Court in another en banc case of Reyes vs Bagatsing (1983) declared that free speech is accorded utmost deference and respect,” the decision read. 

This referred to a 1983 Supreme Court decision which ruled that the late Manila Mayor Ramon Bagatsing’s denial of a permit to rally against American bases in the Philippines was unconstitutional.

Constitution guarantees right against unreasonable arrest

When questioned by reporters about Beltran’s arrest in April, Central Visayas police director Albert Ferro asserted it was valid.

“There are several requirements if we want to conduct a warrantless arrest. One is if he committed a crime, is committing, has committed [a crime]. For this instance she has committed a crime of making false information. Fake news. Very obvious. Even she admitted they have that kind of posting at the website,” said Ferro.

Artiaga disagreed: “Moreover there is no doubt that the manner of Beltran’s warrantless arrest does not fall under any of the strict exceptions under Section 5 of Rule 113 of the Revised Rules of the Court.”

The judge elaborated: “Beltran’s warrantless arrest late at night of April 18th violates the Bill of Rights provision in our Constitution that guarantees a citizen’s right against unreasonable arrest, search and seizure. At the time of Beltran’s arrest she was not committing a crime, there was no hot pursuit, and obviously, Beltran is not an escapee from prison.”

Artiaga said because there was no clarification by the city on their pronouncement of the entire Sitio Zapatera being infected, there was “no continuing crime to speak of.”

Why it’s important

Rappler knows of at least two other documented cases where local government officials threatened to use the fake news provision in the Bayanihan Law or to file cyber libel charges against private citizens who post critical comments on Facebook, or sometimes even in private group chats.

Cebu Governor Gwen Garcia had threatened to sue several individuals, too, for their critical Facebook posts in the early days of the pandemic. She was even reprimanded by the Commission on Human Rights for using her office’s press conferences to publicly shame – and sometimes dox – those who criticize her.

Must Read

Pets get the blues, too

Nationally elected officials have also been going after private citizens who criticize them. Senator Christopher “Bong” Go, the longtime aide of President Rodrigo Duterte, had the NBI summon several individuals who made Facebook posts criticizing him, for example.

Veteran human rights lawyer Jose Manuel “Chel” Diokno said after the decision: “Salamat Ms. Bambi Beltran sa paninindigan sa karapatan nating magsalitang malaya (Thank you Bambi Beltran for standing up for our right to speak freely).”

Sana maging paalala ito sa atin na bantayang mabuti ang ating mga karapatan (I hope that this serves as a reminder to us to protect our rights).”

Both the charges of violating the false information provision of the Bayanihan Law and Reporting of Infectious Diseases were dismissed in the September 15 decision.

A previous cyber libel charge was also dismissed on August 18 for lack of jurisdiction.

Mayor Edgar Labella told the media on September 15 that he was not inclined to re-file charges against Beltran following the court ruling. 

Another case

Beltran was booked on a separate cyber libel charge on August 12, filed by a private individual this time, a certain April Dequito. Beltran filed counter charges against Labella and the arresting officers for rights violations. All of these cases are still pending in court.

While this decision brought a much-needed victory during a time when free speech is being repressed, for Beltran, the fight is far from over.

Read the full decision here:


Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.

Summarize this article with AI

How does this make you feel?

Download the Rappler App!
Nobuhiko Matsunaka


Ryan Macasero

Ryan covers social welfare for Rappler. He started at Rappler as social media producer in 2013, and later took on various roles for the company: editor for the #BalikBayan section, correspondent in Cebu, and general assignments reporter in the Visayas region. He graduated from California State University, East Bay, with a degree in international studies and a minor in political science. Outside of work, Ryan performs spoken word poetry and loves attending local music gigs. Follow him on Twitter @ryanmacasero or drop him leads for stories at