Artists group condemns arrest of Cebu writer on satirical Facebook post

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The Concerned Artists of the Philippines condemned on Sunday, April 19, the arrest of multimedia artist and writer Maria Victoria Beltran by the Cebu City police over a satirical Facebook post on the rising Covid-19 cases in Sitio Zapatera, Cebu.

Cebu-based artist and writer Maria Victoria Beltran (photo from her Facebook page)

Beltran was arrested 12:30 AM Sunday along Gorordo Avenue in Brgy. Kamputhaw by the local police for alleged violation of Art. 154, Revised Penal Code in relation to RA 10175 (Anti-Cybercrime Law).

“This targeting and arrest is a vicious attack on freedom of expression amidst the continuing failure of the national and local governments to ensure expanded and systematic mass testing and a comprehensive public information drive on the pandemic,” the artist group stated. 

Beltran had posted a satirical take in response to recent news of rising confirmed Covid-19 cases in Sitio Zapatera, Barangay Luz, with a population of 9,000. Health officials from the local DOH previously announced it considered the whole area as infected or presumed contaminated, making it the epicenter of the virus outbreak into the city and forcing local government officials to put it under lockdown.

Beltran is known to be vocal on social media about current issues, often employing humor and satire as a means of criticism.

Beltran’s viral Facebook post, which 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” caught the attention of Cebu City mayor Edgardo Labella, who accused Beltran of spreading fake news and hence committing a criminal act, warning that she would be arrested by the PNP Cybercrime Unit.

Prior to her arrest, Beltran already took down the post and issued a public statement with her legal counsel asserting that the satirical post “does not spread chaos, anarchy, fear, or confusion.”

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

“Labella should not be policing cyberspace and threatening citizens. 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,” the group added.  

The organization also expressed alarm over the rising reports of attacks against freedom of speech and of the press in the Visayas region and the National Capital Region. These include the attacks on student journalist Joshua Molo on April 5 and the DENR’s warning against employees to refrain from negative statements on social media on April 6.

“We call for the repeal of clauses such as Sec. 6 (f) of Republic Act No. 11469 (Bayanihan Heal as One Act) which threaten freedom of expression and of the press and enabled the rise of such attacks,” it said.

“We deplore the continued attacks on critical and vigilant voices on social media by troll armies or alleged pro-administration accounts whose comments can constitute acts of harassment, vicious red-tagging, cyberbullying, and even libel.”

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