Seares: ‘Bawal Bastos’: Cebu ordinance stirs teapot, adds little to the law

Pachico A. Seares

BAWAL Bastos Law, or the “Safe Spaces Act” (Republic Act 11313)—which expands the original Sexual Harassment Law and aims to reduce gender-based assault and bias in public places—was passed by Congress last Feb. 6 and signed by President Duterte on April 17. The law took effect in August and its implementing rules were adopted on Oct. 28.

A major segment of Cebu media created some furor about the issue only last week. Heavy-weight broadcasters made a lot of noise and a few jokes. The two local newspapers editorialized. Is their reaction not delayed?

To the national law, yes; to the local legislation, no. They responded to an ordinance on the same subject which the Cebu City Council approved last Dec. 18.

‘Localizing’ the issue

At least, the ordinance stirred local interest. In that sense, it “localized” the issue. In most other respects, however, the LGU’s ordinance may add nothing much to the national law and IRR or implementing rules and regulations.

In fairness, the authors-–Councilors Alvin Dizon, Dave Tumulak and Lea Japson–-make no pretense about being original. On the other hand, they claim to “localize it.” One has to look diligently and still not find any significant difference with RA 11313. The national law is decidedly all-embracing and thorough.

What are prohibited

Take the most basic part, the prohibited acts: The local ordinance repeats en toto the provisions of RA 11313 except on “relentless request for personal details,” to which the local version adds (a) “such as name contact, social media details or destination” and (b) “such as persistent telling of sexual jokes that demean or make any person uncomfortable” and “intrusive gazing or leering.”

One wonders if the few changes on the national law are the local authors’ own or lifted from Quezon City’s Anti-Catcalling Ordinance of 2016 and Manila’s Safe-City for Women and Children Ordinance of 2018.

How the ordinance helps

Between the national law and a copycat ordinance by an LGU, there can only be significant contribution of the local version:

[1] If the ordinance can help make enforcement efficient by fitting the national regulation into the local environment without causing contradiction or conflict. In the past, as in the ordinance on traffic, the LGU would impose penalty stiffer than the national law’s sanction and vest in local authorities a function or power assigned by law to a national agency.

[2] If the ordinance can clarify an unclear provision in the national law. Some acts that constitute sexual harassment are doubtful and deficient: What constitutes “intrusive leering and gazing?” How many times can “uninvited“ comments or slurs be deemed “relentless”? Twice, five times, maybe more? What will express a non-invitation: “no” sternly said, a wagging of the victim’s finger, a pout?

Opting for national law

The ordinance adds little or none to the law. RA 11313 covers all the ground and more, including bullying in the internet. It even duplicates some of the existing laws, such as the penal code provision on acts of lasciviousness and oral defamation and slander.

When it comes to suing though, people most likely opt for the law, not the ordinance. Penalty can go higher: such as, more than six months if stalking is accompanied with touching of body parts.

Cebuano translation

Defenders of the law say the ambiguity is mostly in the reader’s mind, particularly if he does not bother to read the law and the ordinance.

One broadcaster tossed the problem to the legislative authors: “Why can’t they put it more explicitly and plainly?” Another suggested a version in Cebuano-Bisaya for Cebuanos to understand the rule better.

There’s no information on how many people really don’t understand the law or the ordinance. And the controversy it has stirred won’t be resolved unless it is litigated on the basis of an actual dispute.

All-embracing qualifier

Whatever the question about specifics and clarity, the prosecutor or judge has enough of RA 11313 to decide fairly and unequivocally. The listing of the prohibited gender-based acts of sexual harassment on streets and other public spaces is capped with this all-embracing, clarity-producing qualifier: The act, “whether verbal or physical,” must be “unwanted” and has “threatened one’s sense of personal space and physical safety.”

A judge or prosecutor will assess the case in the totality of one incident, the series of acts, not an isolated “gazing or leering” or a single wolf whistle that might be only appreciative and not lewd. He or she will rule on the basis of the facts and the law, with the confidence that the judge or prosecutor can recognize a genuine lover from a jerk behaving badly in public.