Hontiveros: Walden Bello arrest worrisome for free speech, dissent

Franco Luna - Philstar.com
Hontiveros: Walden Bello arrest worrisome for free speech, dissent
Sen. Risa Hontiveros nominates Sen. Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III as the minority bloc leader during the opening of the first regular session of the Senate of the 19th Congress on July 25, 2022.
The STAR / Mong Pintolo, file

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 2:26 p.m.) — Sen. Risa Hontiveros, a member of the Senate's small minority bloc, on Wednesday condemned the arrest and detention of former vice presidential candidate Walden Bello as she noted the quick service of the arrest warrant against the longtime activist.

Bello was arrested over cyber libel complaints filed by a former member of Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte and who is working for her again at the Office of the Vice President.

In a video statement played at a press conference held by the Laban ng Masa coalition and sent to reporters, Hontiveros said that cyber libel had been used by the past administration to silence its critics, particularly progressive voices like Bello and members of the press.

"I am deeply concerned and strongly condemn the arrest and immediate detention of our friend and former comrade Walden Bello," Hontiveros said in Filipino. 

"We all know Walden as a scholar and public servant who tirelessly campaigned for justice, human rights, and the welfare of the majority. We need voices like Walden's: sharp, defiant, and provocative, especially in this day and age."

Bello and Hontiveros formerly represented Akbayan at the House of Representatives in the 14th Congress. Bello resigned from his post in 2015 over disagreements with the party's alliance with the Liberal Party. 

Akbayan has called the arrest "a worrying sign of what is to come under the Marcos-Duterte administration whenever anyone expresses dissent."

VP Duterte distances self from cyber libel raps

Vice President Duterte has denied involvement in the complaints filed by Jefry Tupas, whom she had removed from her staff over a drug raid on a party in Davao de Oro where Tupas had been in attendance. Bello had referred to Tupas as a "drug dealer", prompting the filing of the raps.

"I have never filed a libel case in my life. Criticisms do not deserve even a backward glance because the accomplishments of Davao City under my leadership are already set in stone," she said on Tuesday.

Press freedom and freedom of expression advocates have long called for the decriminalization of libel and cyber libel, which the UN Human Rights Council has pointed out is excessive and is incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

"A lot of people are asking: Is this really our fate in the next six years? That all who disagree will experience imprisonment? That immediately there is a pending case and quick processing against the ones unfriendly with the administration?" Hontiveros asked in her video statement. 

"We will not allow that. As long as we can gather each other and the various voices, we will continue to watch out for and stand for freedom. And, Walden, comrades, you can count on me: I will always add my voice. They cannot silence us."

In a statement Wednesday, rights alliance Karapatan called the incident "a form of judicial harassment and intimidation against a vocal critic of the Duterte dynasty" and called for the charges to be dropped.

Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay said Bello's remarks were an exercise of free speech "to uphold transparency and accountability in the case of the former public information officer of Davao City" and that the case illustrates how laws can be used against members of the political opposition.

Bello's arrest has also prompted statements of solidarity from abroad and from across ideological lines.

"If the administration of Bongbong Marcos hoped that this act of political persecution could be kept quiet they were wrong. We are watching. And we will continue to raise our voice to defend Walden Bello’s freedom," left-wing coalition Progressive International said in its condemnation of the arrest.

In a tweet, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan secretary general Renato Reyes Jr. said: "We condemn this in the strongest terms."

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