Seares: Capitol, Cebu City Hall failed in 2 'fake news' lawsuits: the posts were not deemed false

Pachico A. Seares
·4 min read

TWO complaints initiated separately by the Cebu Provincial Capitol and Cebu City Hall against alleged violators of the laws against spreading false news or information tend to show that local leaders have a different understanding of what constitutes criminal falsehood.

What the LGU heads saw as fake news and punishable in relation to the Covid-19 plague were viewed by the prosecutor or the judge as not fake or not punishable.

In the sense that the judge or the prosecutor in the case threw out the complaints, the governor and the mayor, despite their apparent zeal to help stop the surge of infections, failed.

[1] Last September 11, Mandaue City Associate Prosecutor Arsenia Naparate, with the approval of chief prosecutor Mary Francis Daquipil, dismissed the complaint against Rhea Ruth Rossel for violation of a Cebu Provincial Board ordinance punishing misinformation in the internet about the coronavirus pandemic.

[2] Last September 15, Yvonne Cabaron Artiaga, judge of the Municipal Trial Court in Cities Branch 3 in Cebu City, dismissed two cases against Bambi Beltran for cyber libel and the special law on mandatory reporting of "notifiable" diseases, both involving alleged false and libelous information.

The dates of the two rulings are just four days apart but the case against Rossel, a Manila Times correspondent, was published only last Sunday, November 8. The case against Beltran, a businesswoman and film artist, was released to the media in early September.

Complainant's 'lapses'

Part of the failure of the two complaints may be blamed on the selection of the law that supports each of them.

In the Rossel case, Capitol, through Atty. Frank Dinsay V, the governor's chief of staff, used Provincial Ordinance #2020-2, punishing false information in the digital media relating to Covid-19. The complaint also alleged that Rossel violated Revised Penal Code's Art. 154 punishing unlawful utterances and Presidential Decree #90 punishing rumor-mongering and spreading false information.

Two of the three laws that Atty. Dinsay used didn't work.

* Marcos martial law's PD #90 of 1973 was already repealed by Corazon Aquino's Executive Order #65 of 1986.

* PB ordinance 2020-2, Prosecutor Naparate ruled, was still not in force and effect on April 11, when the alleged violation of Rossel was committed. At the time, two essential requirements were not yet met: (1) the posting of the ordinance at the Capitol and (2) its publication in a newspaper of general circulation.

Capitol's case was thus left with one law, resting only on RPC's Art. 154 provision on unlawful utterances.

City Hall, police erred too

But Cebu City Hall, through its legal office and the city prosecutors, picked the wrong court for its cyber libel complaint against Beltran for her April 18 post about the Covid infections in Sitio Zapatera. The libel count should have been filed with the Regional Trial Court, not with MTCC where Judge Artiaga dismissed it, even as it also threw out the charge that Beltran spread false information.

The Bayanihan to Heal as One Act punishing misinformation may be the right law. But the act complained of was deemed by the judge not false since the news was earlier released by the Department of Health and "picked up by the local dailies in Cebu." (The papers had reported it first, citing the DOH finding, and Beltran used the news as basis for her post.)

Judge Artiaga ruled that Beltran was satirizing ("we are now the epicenter in the whole solar system") and "satirical post is considered protected speech." The judge went further, intoning, "Any court conscious of its mandate to uphold the Constitution should and must wield it as a shield against any means to silence political and social criticisms." Note Artiaga's firm resolve in "must and should."

Rubbing salt on wound of officials was the judge's recognition of violations of Beltran's rights, including her arrest at a weekend dawn and then detention for three days by the police.

The matter of falsehood

Under RPC's Art. 154 -- which punishes false news, the law left for Capitol in the Rossel case -- it is not enough that the information is false. The act must (a) "endanger public order" or (b) "cause damage or interest or credit of the state."

Prosecutor Naparate chose to apply that qualification in its strictest sense, the "clear and present danger" yardstick. Rossel's post, in the view of the judge, didn't come close to the threshold.

In the Beltran case, Judge Artiaga did not consider the information false as it came from the government itself and was legitimized by traditional media. Beltran's exaggeration was a comment, which didn't make the basic information untrue; moreover the Constitution shelters it.

Instructed about caution

There is a lesson that the two lawsuits may have instructed public officials and citizens alike. Cebu City Hall made a threat of sort against Beltran, which the police acted on, and the prosecutors may have unduly rushed to court. The judge saved the day for the justice system.

Capitol did the same thing, erring in the choice of laws: it picked one that was not yet in force when the offense was allegedly committed and another that was long dead. The prosecutor and her chief saved the day for the justice system.