Seares: The virus hasn't killed Mabatid's right to free speech -- or the right's limits

Pachico A. Seares

FIRST, on things that Cebu City Councilor Niña Mabatid is right about the coronavirus that now afflicts community, country and the world.

[1] She is right about being free to speak out, not just "as a public official and chairwoman of the committee on health of the City Council," but as an individual citizen of the country and resident of the city. The virus has not killed free speech, not yet anyway.

[2] She has the right to be concerned about the threat of the pandemic and to disagree with the Department of Health's status report that Cebu is Covid-free.

DOH figures may not reflect the true state of health of Cebu as few tests have been made here and many results still have to be sent to Manila for confirmation. Although though not a health expert, Mabatid must have kept herself fully informed about coronavirus and the methods to attack and contain the enemy.

[3] She has the right to be impatient over what she sees as slow response of government and apathy of some Cebu residents, partly caused by the failure to know the real extent of the virus's assault as reflected in the "Covid-free" official figures that are publicized.

Given the experience of other countries that were quick and efficient and those that were not, Mabatid must have been frightened about where we were going.

Unverified, unconfirmed

But Mabatid was obviously wrong in a few other things, which happen to matter more in this time of emergency:

[1] She shouldn't have publicized what she said she heard from a doctor about the death of three patients in a hospital until they were officially confirmed to have died because of coronavirus.

The DOH procedure, which follows World Health Organization standard, was precisely set up to avoid the confusion that could result from contradictory and unverified news.

Mabatid herself qualified her post of bad news with such words as "suspected" and "unconfirmed" but the way it was presented, along with the tantalizing description "first-hand,' was enough to create some uproar.

Coming from a public official who is vice chairperson of the City Council committee on health, the post packed a wallop heavier than one from an ordinary social media user.

[2] She should've used her position in government to relay her "valuable" information to DOH, the city mayor and the City Council where it could've been assessed and perhaps used to influence changes in local strategy in the fight against coronavirus.

Unverified information could harm a public gripped with uncertainty and fear. Mabatid said she did it "for the good of Cebuanos." If it is grade-A I dossier and not fake news, as police suspect her of circulating, it would do some good if it were brought to the attention of the decision-makers, in this case the inter-agency task force and the local leaders.

The Facebook is a public market where regulators cannot stop half-lies and outright falsehoods from being displayed and circulated before they can be taken down. And even the freedom to bring out "what's on one's mind" does not include the right to defame other people, incite sedition or rebellion, or, in Mabatid's case, set off confusion or panic. The laws against those crimes must tell the councilor that freedom of speech cannot always be a defense or an excuse. Although she didn't libel anyone, she gave raw information, which during a crisis times are deemed false unless proven otherwise.

Mabatid's message

In various FB posts, including posters and video clips, Mabatid has kept repeating the message: She fears for her constituents, especially those who are poor and others not privileged. She worries about the health system not adequate to meet a deluge of infected persons; she wants to help them, which she articulates in an multimedia message that top local officials still have to duplicate. And she is helping now by using the City Council to persuade creditors to put off collection bills and by engaging in a campaign to disinfect barangay streets.

Critics may question her motive but they have no proof of ill intent in her self-advertising, which most politicians do all the time anyway. Supporters applaud what she's doing during the period of emergency but they're wary about her prattle about unconfirmed deaths.