Cebu film writer arrested over Facebook post about coronavirus in Sitio Zapatera

Ryan Macasero

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Cebu film writer arrested over Facebook post about coronavirus in Sitio Zapatera
(2nd UPDATE) Maria Victoria Beltran describes Cebu City as being the 'epicenter' of COVID-19 'in the whole Solar System.' The writer and business owner was arrested without a warrant

CEBU CITY, Philippines (2nd UPDATE) – A Cebu film writer and owner of a local bar was arrested early morning on Sunday, April 19 over a sarcastic Facebook post she made in relation to the coronavirus “contamination” of Sitio Zapatera in Cebu City.

Maria Victoria Beltran’s lawyer, Vincent Isles, confirmed the arrest to Rappler in a text message. (READ: Entire Cebu City sitio ‘presumed contaminated’ with coronavirus)

“It’s an egregious violation of her rights,” Isles said in a text message. 

He said that they have no information on what the exact charges are and who issued the arrest warrant. 

Brigadier General Albert Ferro, Central Visayas’ police director, told Rappler in a text message Beltran was being charged with violating Republic Act 10175, or the Cybercrime Law. 

The cybercrime unit is under the Police Regional Office-7 (PRO-7). 

The arrest stemmed from a post made by Beltran on Sitio Zapatera, in Barangay Luz, an area of over 9,000 residents, having the most number of COVID-19 cases in Cebu City.

Her post said, “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.”

To this, Mayor Edgar Labella replied in Cebuano: “This is FAKE NEWS and this is a criminal act. Just wait Ms Beltran, you’ll soon be caught by the PNP Cybercrime Unit. You’ll really be thrown in prison.”

After Labella threatened Beltran with arrest, she took down this post and issued this statement on her Facebook page. 

“Upon advice of counsel, [I] had temporarily taken down the post characterized by the Hon. Mayor Edgar Labella as fake news and violative of our laws,” Beltran said.

“There was no intent to spread confusion and fear by the posting of the said post. We hold that prosecution of any person under Sec. 6(f) of Republic Act No. 11469 can only occur when the post is “clearly geared to promote chaos, anarchy, fear, or confusion,” she added.

She said that “even an ordinary person without the benefit of being exposed to the finer qualities of literature” should understand that the post was satirical. 

Labella himself appointed Beltran to the Cebuano Cinema Development Council in 2019. (READ: Cebuano Cinema Development Council finally sworn in after 5 years)

The post was a comment on the Cebu City Health Department and Department of Health (DOH) announcement that the entire area would be considered “contaminated” with 136 people testing positive, the most out of any area in the region so far. 

The live-in staff of Beltran’s bar on Gorordo Avenue in this city was not aware that she had been arrested in the morning and thought she was missing.

They learned from her lawyer that she was already detained at the Police Regional Office-7.

Beltran is a well-known screenwriter, poet, and actor of local independent Visayan films. Her original story Ang Damgo Ni Eleuteria was adapted into a screenplay by Remton Zuasola, that won 4 Gawad Urian awards in 2011. 

Artist group Concerned Artists of the Philippines (CAP) condemned Beltran’s arrest.

“We condemn Mayor Edgardo Labella’s specific targetting of Beltran’s post as a criminal act and precluding the incident today with the threat of arrest by the PNP Cybercrime Unit,” CAP said in its statement. “These instances of citizens voicing out opinions on social media should not be suppressed in any functioning democracy by the state.”

They said Labella should not “not be policing cyberspace and threatening citizens.”

The statement added, “Instead, we challenge the mayor to focus on his mandate and local response to containing local transmission of COVID-19 especially in marginalized and vulnerable communities under his jurisdiction because lives are at stake. This is what commentary and satire is driving at.” 

Isles wrote in a statement on Facebook at around 5 pm that Beltran’s legal team was able to talk to her at Camp Sergio Osmeña where she is being detained.

Co-counsel Ben Militar said Labella visited Beltran in detention late afternoon and denied he had anything to do with the arrest.

If he had nothing to do with the arrest, why did he come here then?” Militar said. He also confirmed that the writer and businesswoman was arrested without a warrant.

Her legal team urged the authorities to be more “circumspect” in exercising police powers.

Beltran’s legal counsel said in a statement: “Ms. Beltran would be assisted in this case by a team of lawyers who had taken the case pro bono, coming from different law offices and of differing political persuasions, united primarily by their assertion that the rule of law is not suspended even during the time of the pandemic, and the ordinary citizen retains the right to comment freely on matters of public concern.”

They pointed out that the “fake news” provisions under the Bayanihan Act (Republic Act No 11469), or the law giving the government emergency powers, “did not expand authority given under rules of the court.” (READ: Bayanihan Act’s sanction vs ‘false’ info the ‘most dangerous’)

Isles added, “the fake news provision under Section 6(f) of the Bayanihan Act should be used by our law enforcers and local chief executives to prosecute those who clearly has the intent to sow fear and confusion, not to those who had a witty remark on the government’s response to this crisis.”

Beltran is still detained at PRO-7 as of this posting. – 

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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