Human Rights Watch views with concern the arrest of Cebu City-based writer and actor Bambi Beltran, allegedly for violating the law on “false information.” Her arrest is a case of government officials misapplying the law. Her post on Facebook — “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.” – is clearly commentary that was meant to be humorous. It was based on earlier official pronouncements that the whole community of Zapatera, which has a population of more than 9,000, has been deemed “contaminated” by the COVID-19 virus. 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. Nothing it what Beltran said can be legitimately construed as a hindrance to Cebu City’s efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Instead of arresting people for their thoughts, Cebu City officials should focus their attention on defeating COVID-19 and provide truthful, accurate information to the public. Citizens like Beltran have a right to express their opinions about what is happening; government officials should resist the temptation to act despotic in responding to those concerns.
Human Rights Watch
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