Prosecutor junks second sedition rap vs teacher over Duterte bounty tweet

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 20 2021 10:43 AM | Updated as of Feb 20 2021 10:46 AM

Prosecutor junks second sedition rap vs teacher over Duterte bounty tweet 1
Teacher Ronnel Mas upon his release in May 2020. ABS-CBN News/File

 Prosecutor faults NBI for failure to provide additional evidence of supposed media confession

MANILA — A Zambales prosecutor has junked a new complaint filed by the National Bureau of Investigation against a teacher who allegedly tweeted about raising a P50-million reward for the life of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Acting Zambales provincial prosecutor Leonardo Santos, in a resolution dated February 16, “dismissed for lack of probable cause” the inciting to sedition charge the NBI re-filed against Ronnel Mas due to the bureau's failure to present additional evidence that he tweeted the controversial post.

The NBI also failed to provide a recording of Mas’ supposed confession to the media and did not comply with rules on electronic evidence in investigating and gathering data, according to the resolution.

The dismissal comes 8 months since an Olongapo court threw out the inciting to sedition charge against Mas on the ground that he was illegally arrested and that his subsequent media confession did not cure the invalidity of his arrest.

NBI operatives arrested Mas without a warrant in Zambales on May 11 last year after a co-teacher identified him as the owner of the Twitter account which posted the now deleted tweet offering a reward to anyone who could kill Duterte.

The then-25-year-old public school teacher was brought to the NBI headquarters in Manila where he confessed to the media and apologized for his tweet.

But Olongapo City Regional Trial Court Branch 72 Judge Richard Paradeza noted the arrest was illegal as it was made 6 days after the tweet was posted and NBI operatives had no personal knowledge of Mas committing the alleged crime.

Instead, they relied on the statement given by his co-teacher Julius Hallado, who the court said was "not certain,” based on his affidavit, if Mas owned the account.

The judge also pointed out the NBI did not submit the affidavit of the person who interviewed Mas nor video clips of his interview.

In an attempt to remedy the gaps in their evidence, the NBI secured an affidavit of an ABS-CBN News cameraman who recorded Mas’ interview, but the NBI failed to submit a copy of the video recording.

The NBI had promised during a December 1, 2020 hearing to submit a reply-affidavit and the video copy in the next hearing, but it failed to appear during the December 15, 2020 proceedings.

The NBI also submitted the Facebook post of a government prosecutor where the supposed comment identifying Mas as the owner of the Twitter account was made.

“The resolution must stand that the complainant failed to prove the identity of the perpetrator,” Santos said in his resolution, stressing that the authentication requirement under the Rules on Electronic Evidence was not met. 

The rules apply in cybercrime cases where the evidence are mostly found online.

“Attached print-out of Facebook post was not authenticated and verified. Without compliance to this Rule, anyone can easily create a bogus account to implicate a person,” he said.

“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 as by tracing the IP address,” he added.

Under the rule, authenticity of an electronic document must be proven by:

  •  Evidence it has been digitally signed by the person who allegedly signed it
  •  Evidence that other appropriate security procedures or devices authorized by the Supreme Court or by law for authenticating electronic documents was used
  •  Other evidence showing integrity and reliability of the electronic document

Santos also reiterated the Olongapo court’s previous ruling.

“Absent the vital pieces of evidence showing that indeed the accused made the extra-judicial admission on the subject matter, the court (likewise herein investigating prosecutor) cannot surmise that there was indeed an extra-judicial admission on the matter made by the accused.”

The investigating prosecutor said the NBI was duty-bound to follow its mandate under RA 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.

“The law is categorically crystal clear. A cyber-warrant must be obtained first before the court,” he said.

“First, no cyber-warrant has been issued; second, no digital forensic examination report has been attached to the record; and third, as pronounced by the above-mentioned court, the warrantless arrest is not done under Rule 113, Sec. 5,” he added, referring to the rules on warrantless arrest which is only allowed in cases of actual commision of the crime, hot pursuit or fugitives.

Santos went to the extent of reproducing sections 9 to 16 of the implementing rules and regulations of the Cybercrime Prevention Act on collecting, preserving, retaining and disclosing computer data as well as conducting search, seizure and examination of their contents.

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

“Even a traditional mode of securing witnesses as to the identity of the account holder of the Twitter account which contains the remark inciting to sedition miserably fails because as above-stated, the witness is doubtful as to the identity of the account holder as the respondent,” he concluded.

Santos clarified that although he understands the seriousness of the tweet and the possible impact it might have on disrupting peace and order in the country, “he cannot turn a blind eye to the rules of procedure, quantum of evidence and the law.”

“The complainant has the burden of proof to establish that indeed the respondent is the one who actually posted the remarks inciting to sedition,” he said.

Santos was designated acting provincial prosecutor of Zambales for the case after the Zambales Office of the Provincial Prosecutor inhibited.

Mas’ lawyer Dino de Leon from the Free Legal Assistance Group welcomed the dismissal of the complaint.

“The enablers of atrocities of this regime can only go so far, for so long as there are people who will stand up for the rule of law,” he said. 

“Indeed, what this decision shows (is) that ordinary people like Teacher Ronnel can push back and can stand up against oppression, injustice, and violations of human rights,” he added.