Philippine justice system

Zambales prosecutor junks NBI’s refiled complaint vs teacher over ‘kill Duterte’ tweet

Lian Buan

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CLEARED AGAIN. A 25-year-old teacher who was arrested over a tweet about offering a P50 million reward to kill President Rodrigo Duterte is again cleared of an inciting to sedition suit, this time by a prosecutor.

Photo courtesy of Allan Sison

'For, after all, the issue at hand is a balance of the Bill of Rights, particularly the freedom of speech, and the State's police power for common good and public order,' says Zambales prosecutor JT Leonardo Santos

Having lost the case in court last year, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) refiled an inciting to sedition complaint against teacher Ronnel Mas over a tweet offering a reward to kill President Rodrigo Duterte, but the suit was junked once more by a Zambales prosecutor.

Acting provincial prosecutor JT Leonardo Santos dismissed the complaint on February 16 after the NBI failed to submit the required proof the alleged crime. The complaint was for inciting to sedition related to cybercrime.

“The prosecutor understands the seriousness of the remark made and the possible impact it may have created in disrupting peace and order in our country. However, he cannot turn a blind eye to the rules of procedure, quantum of evidence and the law,” Santos said in the resolution released to media on Saturday, February 20.

An Olongapo court dropped the charges against Mas in June 2020, ruling that the warrantless arrest was illegal and that the teacher’s extrajudicial confession to the media was inadmissible. 

Santos said that knowing the court decision in June, the NBI should have beefed up its complaint with proof, including forensic examination of electronics, to prove that Mas was indeed behind the tweet.

“The tragedy in this so-called cybercrime is the proper identification of the perpetrator,” said Santos.

“Anyone can easily create a bogus account to implicate a person. It is material that there is proof that indeed the source of that electronic evidence is from a computer within the control of the respondent, such by tracing the IP address,” Santos added.

Santos also pointed out that under the cybercrime law, the NBI should have followed proper procedures in seizing and preserving electronic data. Santos said that the NBI did not even properly authenticate an iPhone that was supposed to be among its evidence.

“Nothing under this law has been complied with in the investigation and gathering of data to identify the perpetrator and effectively prosecute the same,” said Santos.

NBI agents arrested Mas in May 2020 without a warrant after supposedly tracking him down. Agents interrogated Mas inside a van without counsel, and perp-walked him in front of the media at the Manila headquarters, where he admitted to tweeting as the cameras rolled.

Under the Bill of Rights, people under custodial investigation have the right to have a lawyer present at all times. The Olongapo court had said verbal admissions without the presence of a lawyer are inadmissible.

In the first complaint, a state prosecutor in the Deparment of Justice (DOJ) charged Mas, giving weight to the extrajudicial confession, and even saying that it cured the warrantless arrest.

For the refiled complaint, Santos said he had to be strict in following the parameters of probable cause.

“For, after all, the issue at hand is a balance of the Bill of Rights, particularly the freedom of speech, and the State’s police power for common good and public order,” said Santos.

During the pandemic, the NBI had a special focus on these supposed cybercrimes, which targeted mostly critics of the government, even sending subpoenas on the request of Duterte’s close aide, Senator Bong Go.

These were made under a policy banning so-called coronavirus fake news, later turned into law through Duterte’s special pandemic powers, the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act. –

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.