Coronavirus Updates: Threat to free speech in Cebu

Published 8:00 AM, May 26, 2020
Updated 1:46 AM, June 02, 2020

(This newsletter was emailed to Rappler subscribers on May 25, 2020)

As we shift to what our government likes to call a “new normal,” let’s not forget that limiting free expression is not, and should not be, part of that deal.

During this lockdown, we’ve documented in Cebu at least 3 instances where residents were either intimidated by politicians, visited by police, or arrested for their Facebook posts.

One of our most-read stories about Cebu is the one on artist Bambi Beltran, who was arrested past midnight in her residence here after Mayor Edgar Labella called her post “fake news.”

Among the charges thrown at Beltran was the Bayanihan Heal As One Act’s fake news provision, which human rights lawyer Ted Te called problematic and vague.

“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,” her sarcastic post said.

This 124-character post landed Bambi 60 hours in detention. If convicted on all charges filed against her, she could face up to 18 years in prison and a fine of up to P1 million.

While injustice is prevalent and not a new story in our country, I think what drew people to keep following this story was that the person they tried to get was not just anyone, but an artist, a writer, a business owner – and an appointee of Cebu City Mayor Edgar Labella to a local arts body.

Anyone who knows Bambi knows she is combative, confrontational, and sometimes too fearless for her own good. It is not often we come across someone who doesn’t cower in fear when cuffed by state forces.

A few days later, on April 23, in Cordova town, Maria Shanyl Emeliano tagged Mayor Mary Therese Sitoy-Cho in a Facebook post, complaining about alleged persistent shortage of cash and food at a supermarket. This prompted a heated online exchange between the mayor and Emeliano, after which local police visited the netizen’s house to ask about the post.

The mayor and the Facebook user eventually sorted out their differences without resorting to criminal complaints.

CEBU Governor Gwendolyn Garcia. File photo from Cebu Province Public Information Office/Sugbo News

CEBU Governor Gwendolyn Garcia. File photo from Cebu Province Public Information Office/Sugbo News


The other freedom of speech case in Cebu involves the governor and a netizen.

On Friday, May 22, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) criticized Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia for publishing the address of a netizen and shaming the latter with details of her private life during a press con.

Responding to how Garcia handled her critic, the CHR said: “We seek to remind public officials – elective or appointive – that they are bound by high standards of ethics in public service. They must perform their duties with utmost responsibility, integrity, and respect, and shall be accountable to the people they are serving.”

This serves as a good reminder for public officials and normal citizens alike.

CHR added: “As part of their duties, public officials are also expected to have a higher threshold for feedback and should respect the constitutionally recognized rights of every Filipino to express grievances and petition for their redress without fear of being persecuted.”

While ideally we should criticize in a way without cursing someone out, at the end of the day, local officials’ business is our business. They craft and pass budgets. They spend public funds. Their decisions affect our health, our jobs, and our businesses.

Under no circumstances does a public health emergency take away our right to speak. Let us not be convinced otherwise.


The cities of Cebu, Mandaue, and Lapu-Lapu completed their mass testing project last week, testing over 45,000 households using rapid tests.

Those who tested positive in the rapid tests were swabbed, and their samples are being processed now at the laboratory here in Cebu City.

This means we can expect confirmed cases in Cebu City to reach 2,000 within the next few days.

While Cebu City and Mandaue City are still under lockdown, or enhanced community quarantine, the rest of the province have begun easing restrictions to kick-start the economy.

While Cebu City is independent from the province, the capitol is located within Cebu City. How will a restricted city and a relaxed province manage differing rules? Let’s see. –

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