Arrest of Cebu artist over COVID-19 post a 'misuse' of law: rights group


Posted at Apr 21 2020 06:12 PM

MANILA — A human rights group expressed concern Tuesday over the arrest of a Cebu City-based artist over her social media post which allegedly violated the cybercrime law amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

Maria Victoria Beltran, in a Facebook post Saturday, said there were "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."

Beltran was referring to Sitio Zapatera in Barangay Luz, Cebu City, which has 135 COVID-19 patients.

In a statement, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Beltran's arrest was a "misapplication" of the law that undermines freedom of expression. 

"Her arrest is a case of government officials misapplying the law... While public officials dealing with COVID-19 are expected to feel stressed, overwhelmed, even aggrieved by criticism, misusing the law to violate freedom of expression is a disproportionate and wrong response," HRW Philippine Researcher Carlos Conde said. 

Before her arrest last Sunday, Beltran had justified her now-deleted post as "satirical, designed to show wit instead of spreading chaos, anarchy, fear, or confusion."

Cebu City Mayor Edgardo Labella, however, said Beltran's post caused "quite a panic" among residents. Labella said Beltran's arrest was "nothing personal."

But Conde said the officials should have just turned its focus on its response against the pandemic instead of ordering arrest of critics. 

"Instead of arresting people for their thoughts, Cebu City officials should focus their attention on defeating COVID-19... Government officials should resist the temptation to act despotic in responding to those concerns," said Conde.

As of Sunday afternoon, Beltran was detained at the Police Regional Office 7 in Cebu City, according to one of her counsels Vincent Isles.