What you need to know
Walden Bello, an esteemed scholar and candidate for vice president in the last election in the Philippines, is the latest victim in a string of “cyber-libel” cases that have undermined civil liberties.
QUEZON CITY — Acclaimed scholar and activist Walden Bello was arrested on August 8 in his home in Quezon City. Bello was detained for roughly 24 hours before posting bail for one charge of cyber-libel and another for libel. Bail was set at P96,000 (US$1,732) for both charges.
This past May, Bello ran against Sara Duterte, the daughter of former president Rodrigo Duterte and the incumbent vice president. Bello partnered with Laban ng Masa (Fight of the Masses) presidential aspirant Leody de Guzman, while Duterte ran and won alongside Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.
Sara Duterte’s former aide, Jefry Tupas, filed the libel case against Bello last March. The allegations stem from a statement made by Bello during the campaign on an alleged cover-up of Tupas’s drug use.
Duterte, then Mayor of Davao City, had dodged all of the campaign debates. In response to this, Bello criticized Duterte for the absences. But the real substance of Bello’s criticism was that Duterte was avoiding confrontation over a brewing political scandal that exposed the Duterte family as hypocritical in carrying out their infamous drug war. He alluded to a case in which Tupas was allegedly released by government agents during a drug raid after learning Tupas worked with the presidential family. While making the allegations, Bello called Tupas a “drug dealer.”
The Duterte dynasty’s political base is Davao City, and their popularity is in part owed to their reputation for harshly punishing drug-related crimes. In an act of political damage control, Tupas was fired from her post after the incident went public, and thereafter the Duterte campaign refused to address the alleged incident. It was in this context that Bello accused Sara Duterte of avoiding the matter and debates.
“If Davao City is so ‘multi-awarded,’ why is it that Mayor [Sara] Duterte’s Press Information Officer Jefry Tupas was nabbed at a beach party where she and her friends were snorting P1.5 million (US$27, 066) worth of drugs,” Bello said in a March , prompting Tupas to file charges.
Bello believes Sara Duterte is the “mastermind” behind this politically motivated lawsuit with Tupas acting as a mere “stooge” in all of it.
Arrest draws flak
While opposition officials are few and far between under the new Marcos administration, civil society groups and progressive lawmakers made their voices heard.
Former congressman and lawyer Teddy Baguilat pledged to join the defense team of Bello after his release. He told reporters, “Walden is recognized and admired internationally. I can attest to that. Parliamentarians in the ASEAN have always admired his human rights advocacies. The charges are baseless and mark the first significant attempt, not even two months in the new government’s rule, to intimidate the political opposition.”
Senator Risa Hontiveros, one of the few opposition members in the Philippine Senate, asked, “Is this what we can expect in the next six years, that all those who disagree who aren’t considered friends of the government will experience detention, and have quickly processed charges waiting for them?”
Neri Colmenares, who has filed challenges against “cyber-libel” in Philippine courts, echoed this sentiment. He saw the recent arrest as a worrying sign of more human rights abuses to come, saying, “It seems that the tyranny unleashed by the Duterte regime not only extends but might be getting even worse under the Marcos 2.0 government.”
Congresswoman France Castro reiterated her opposition to the use of libel lawsuits by high level officials to go after dissidents. In July, she re-filed a bill to decriminalize all forms of libel.
Cyber-libel sparks debate anew
Attorney Luke Espiritu, who represents Bello, linked his client’s case to the widespread and continuing political repression in the country. He told The News Lens, “This is not an individual case involving Walden. This is a case which threatens our democratic rights and freedom of speech. Any sensible servant of the court should look at these charges and throw them into the garbage.”
Bello’s camp is looking to have the libel allegations dismissed as soon as possible. Espiritu also revealed that he petitioned the Department of Justice on July 29, 2022 to have the libel case thrown out. “Libel is a weapon used by those who come under public scrutiny. It nurtures a culture without critics of government.”
Meanwhile, Espiritu called on the public to be vigilant in defending human rights. Fighting criminal libel laws “is also defending ourselves. We too are under threat. They are saying that if we criticize those in power, they will do the same to us.”
Duterte hit back against her former electoral opponent, calling on Bello to “stop obsessing over me — and stop blaming me for his fall from grace.” “The right to freedom of speech and expression does not protect anyone from defiling the name and reputation of others,” Duterte continued.
Bello is only the latest in a string of cyber-libel cases that has undermined free speech. In 2019, then-vice president Leni Robredo, an opponent of many of the human rights violations of the Rodrigo Duterte administration, was slapped with a cyber-libel case filed by the Philippine National Police. Last July, the Court of Appeals upheld the cyber-libel conviction of Nobel Prize winning journalist and Rappler founder Maria Ressa.
In 2014, the Supreme Court declared the Cybercrime Prevention Act, which includes cyber-libel as a criminal offense, to be constitutional. The decision was heavily protested as a means of expanding the realm with which officials could stifle free speech.
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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