OPINION: Gagging truth-tellers in the time of COVID19 1

OPINION: Gagging truth-tellers in the time of COVID19

Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at Apr 21 2020 03:57 PM

Only under full-blown tyranny would possession of critical news publications lead to a warrantless arrest and a charge of attempting to incite people to sedition.

But that’s exactly what happened in Bulacan, just north of the national capital, where police have charged seven relief aid workers from Sagip Kanayunan and Tulong Anakpawis.

The charge stems from a blocked relief operation to Norzagaray town on Sunday, April 19. Police charged the team on April 20 of an attempt to incite to sedition and other offenses, including violation of section 9 of Republic Act 11332 or the Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Health Concern Act; violation of Article 151 of the Revised Penal Code (RPC) or Resistance and Disobedience to Persons in Authority or Agents of Such Persons; and violation of section 4, Presidential Proclamation 992, Series of 2020, on the enhanced community quarantine. Among those charged is former Anakpawis representative Ariel Casilao, who faces an additional case, alleged usurpation of authority.

None of those arrested is considered a probable carrier of COVID19. Casilao, a member of the organization’s quick reaction team, and Lt. Col. Jaime Quicho, had negotiated amicably, with both sides agreeing to have officials of the beneficiary village pick up the supplies at the police station.

The team was about to head back to Metro Manila when Quicho sent them to the provincial police office in Malolos to meet with higher officials.

That’s where events got dicey, with the provincial deputy police chief breaking out into a harangue over copies of Pinoy Weekly newspaper and other literature critical of the government’s response to the COVID19 outbreak.

Legitimate journalism

Police officers and Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesman, Marine Brig. General Edgard Arevalo, claim the activists were engaged in agitation aimed at undermining and destabilizing President Rodrigo Duterte’s government.

Their evidence: legal, legitimate literature.

Pinoy Weekly has been around for more than a decade. Its editor-in-chief, Kenneth Guda, won the 2017 National Book Award in the journalism category, for “Peryodismo sa Bingit: Mga Naratibong Ulat sa Panahon ng Digmaan at Krisis.” 

Guda and Pinoy Weekly also received a prize for distinction in 2007 from the Jaime V. Ongpin Awards for Journalism. Their in-depth report on the impact of the controversial Japan-Philippine Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA) on fishing communities was named among the country’s top ten best reports that year. 

JVO Winners and Fellows by Center for Media Freedom & ... on Scribd

Guda's report on the San Roque, Quezon City urban poor protest dispersal last month was rare for its depth and breadth of detail, showing how uneven standards of aid delivery could worsen conflicts in neighborhoods burdened by hunger and poverty. That report was in one of the copies seized by police officials.

Police officials claim the seized publications called for Duterte’s ouster. What was actually there was a report on how the #OustDuterte hashtag trended worldwide one day in March. The use of a hashtag isn’t even ground for the charge since one could just be sharing a sentiment.

The pamphlets on COVID19 used data from the official government reports and the World Health Organization. While assessment on the government’s response can vary, even intense criticism is covered by the constitutional right on free expression.

In the dead of night

Elsewhere in the country, social media posts have also led to warrantless arrests.

Cebu City-based writer and actor Bambi Beltran was arrested on April 19, allegedly for violating the law on “false information.” 

Her post: “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.”

The member of the Dakila cultural collective based her commentary on earlier official pronouncements that the Cebu village of Zapatera (population 9,000) was deemed “contaminated” by the Covid-19 virus. Millions of Filipinos on social media know the solar system quip was a reference to pro-Duterte memes, falsely quoting international figures as hailing him for being “the best President” in ever widening circles of comparison.

Faced with a Facebook warning from Cebu City Mayor Edgardo Labella, Beltran took down her post. That didn’t stop police from arresting her past midnight, on a Sunday.

Gags and sanctions

As the Duterte government fends off complaints over the slow delivery of social services amid heightened lockdown efforts, whistleblowers in the bureaucracy have also faced reprisals.

The Department of Health (DOH) reassigned Dr. Clarita Avila, deputy chief of the National Center for Mental Health, after she sounded the alarm on COVID19 cases and deaths in the facility.

The DOH has also asked quarantined overseas workers to sign waivers against posting on social media. Defiant workers, however, reached out to ABS-CBN reporter Mike Navallo with details about the “filthy and unhygienic” conditions in their quarantine centers.

The subsequent social media furor prompted the OWWA to improve their Quezon City accommodations.

The National Bureau of Investigation had earlier summoned around a dozen individuals to explain why they should not face charges for spreading “false information”.

Duterte has also attacked human rights lawyers for coming to the aid of residents facing attacks on their civil liberties during the emergency period. The President sees offers of legal aid as "giving encouragement for people to violate the law."

What the national COVID19 experience has shown, so far, is that centralizing decision-making in the hands of a few people with the same worldview is detrimental to society’s health.

Curtailing free expression can only worsen the government’s tunnel vision that sees only the exercise of might as antidote to a contagion.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.