CEBU

EXPLAINER: What dismissal of charges against Bambi Beltran over Covid-19 post instruct government leaders, social media users.

CEBU. Businesswoman Maria Victoria "Bambi" Beltran (left) and Judge Yvonne Artiaga. (SunStar File)

THE SITUATION. [1] Three charges against businesswoman, part-time film actress Maria Victoria "Bambi" Burdeos Beltran of Cebu City, whose April 18 Facebook post angered the city mayor, have been dismissed by the Municipal Trial Court in Cities:

The first, cyber-libel, thrown out last August 17, for lack of jurisdiction. The other two, misinformation under the Bayanihan I law and non-cooperation on notifiable diseases, was dumped last September 15, for lack of evidence.

[2] Beltran was to be arraigned on the last two charges on September 21. Judge Yvonne Artiaga cancelled that, as well as the bail Beltran posted. There was no probable cause and her constitutional rights were violated, her order said.

[3] The cyber-libel case may be re-filed by the prosecutor with the proper court, a Regional Trial Court. But the city legal office, which helped prosecute Beltran, is not seeking a motion for reconsideration of the dismissal of the charges based on the Bayanihan law and the Notifiable Diseases Act.

The cyber-libel case is also for alleged false news, which the MTCC ruling in effect rejected. Would they give up the last two cases and press on with the cyber-libel charge -- maybe the RTC judge would see it differently?

WHAT WAS MISSED. The mayor's office and the city legal office at City Hall may have inaccurately assessed Beltran's post and the applicable laws. Mayor Edgardo Labella must have been so angered by the comment on Covid-19 that he said in an April 19 FB post he would have Beltran arrested for "the fake news." And a few hours later, police descended on her home.

The two offices made the wrong call on (1) the choice of the laws to base the charges on and (2) rating the post as false information and the alleged falsehood as a criminal act.

The cyber-libel case should've gone to the right court and they should've known the Beltran post would not fall under the Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Health Concern Act. The said law (RA #1132) involves reporting and cooperating on the control of infectious diseases (Republic Act #1132). Not applicable to Beltran's case.

On choice of the right law, City Hall, along with the city prosecutor's office, scored two out of three: the Cybercrime Law (RA #10175) for the allegedly fake news, and the Bayanihan to Heal As One Act (RA #11432), "for intentionally providing misinformation."

But City Hall and company missed on the jurisdiction of cyber-libel and, more importantly, the evidence to support the charges of libel and "misinformation." The post was infuriating to the mayor and others working hard to slow the spread of coronavirus, but would the case stand in court?

CORE OF 'FALSEHOOD' OR 'MIS-INFORMATION." The offensive post was: "9,000+ new cases (all from Zapatera) of Covid-19 in Cebu City in one day. We are the epicenter of the whole solar system."

The two-sentence comment cost Beltran about P45,000 in bail to free herself from detention. That was after she was arrested: without a warrant, late in the night, hauled by police to the PNP station and allegedly into "a windowless room (with no electric fan or air-con) ... cuffed to a chair and interviewed three times to admit that she posted fake news."

Even before the court ruling, when the controversy erupted, circumstances tended to favor Beltran, which the court order mostly validated:

[1] Beltran is not a journalist, didn't pretend to be an expert on infectious diseases, was not a citizen giving an eye-witness account, not a provider of news or information FB readers would rely on or trust, and not a cult leader or celebrity with a huge following.

[2] Her post was a comment, a satire. The giveaway, Judge Artiaga noted in her order, was the phrase "epicenter of the whole solar system." The string of words is an exaggeration. Exaggeration is tool of satire. And satire, the judge quoting the Supreme Court said, is part of social or political comment, which enjoys constitutional protection. Beltran's post was thus "protected speech," "a constitutionally guaranteed right."

[3] The information Beltran repeated and commented on had been published widely and its source was a government official. An April 17 news story in a local paper was headlined on Page 1 thus: "DOH 7: Entire sitio infected." Sourced particularly to City Health Officer Daisy Villa who said they will stop the mass testing in Sitio Zapatera, Barangay Luz, "the epicenter of coronavirus in Cebu City, as DOH now considers the entire area infected."

'OVERBLOWN' THREAT. The response to Beltran's post was criticized as over-reaction to a "fake news" threat that may have also been over-blown.

Police intervention, use of warrantless arrest, detaining and charging the suspect on alleged multiple violations of law impressed some people as "over-reach." The comparison can't be helped: The Labella method on the Beltran case as against Capitol's Governor Gwen Garcia confronting the "fake news" suspects or "shaming" them in public.

Some people justify the moves as necessary in the light of the coronavirus emergency. Government leaders and bureaucrats have been on quick-reaction mood, not exactly knowing how to slow the contagion, and thinking the public would accept, even applaud repressive acts crucial to protecting people's health.

THE GOOD PART. To government defenders and critics alike, the "redeeming part" was that the justice machinery worked even during the pandemic.

The judge ruled according to how she saw the facts and the law, with deep respect for the Constitution, which to her is a "clear mandate" to all judges.

The judge could've glossed over the warrantless arrest of Beltran. She did not. Judge Artiaga tackled the side issue of illegal arrest with as much thoroughness as she did with the core issue of false information. She slammed the violation of Beltran's civil liberties, throwing quotes from the high court for the benefit of unbelievers.

The strong point her order made was that the conditions for a warrantless arrest must be present even during the health crisis.

And the sobering note to social media commentators and "reporters" could be this: the need for caution in the opinion and news they peddle.


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