A waste of time

BAR NONE - Atty. Ian Vincent Manticajon (The Freeman) - April 21, 2020 - 12:00am

How are some of people reacting to the warrantless arrest of Cebu-based entrepreneur and screenwriter Maria Victoria “Bambi” Beltran over the weekend? My social media feed and chat groups have been buzzing lately about her arrest with hashtags like #FreeBAMBI.

The center of the controversy is the Facebook post of Ms. Beltran talking about the “9,000+ residents” of ‘Zapatera’ and Cebu City being the “epicenter in the whole solar system.” It was apparently in reaction to the earlier pronouncement from the local health department as quoted by CNN Philippines stating: “We have already deemed (Sitio Zapatera) as a contaminated place. And we will just monitor everyone who will be symptomatic and bring them to the facility."

Wrote a writer and a colleague of mine at UP Cebu, Prof. Mayette Tabada about Ms. Beltran’s erstwhile social media post: “I would be careful about using ‘Zapatera’ because there are a sitio and a barangay using this name. In the fears percolating under ECQ, people are now blaming the victims, as Zapatera residents complain. How many people look hard at images but only scan once anything longer than a phrase. As a writer, I would err on the side of caution because I don't want to spread hate and blaming.”

Mayette added: “I miss Tommy O. Because he spewed his views on social media and gave as good as he got. Onion-skinned officials are just a few of the unexpected vermins crawling under ECQ and the state's iron fist.”

Here’s another reaction from a literary writer and professor of literature: “Bambi was just expressing her reaction hyperbolically. The mayor overreacted… But it’s also very likely that in a not normal time like this, people could panic easily, and maybe that's what he was trying to safeguard.”

As a lawyer and Mass Media Law lecturer, I can write lengthily about the right of every person to express his ideas and opinions freely - without restraint or threat of punishment. But that this right comes with a basic condition that its exercise shall not deliberately cause harm to another person's character or reputation, and that its exercise shall not threaten the public welfare.

Whether or not Ms. Beltran’s post “threatened the public welfare” in this time of COVID-19 is a matter I will leave for her accusers and her able team of lawyers to argue before the prosecutor. Allow me take another approach to this issue.

During public health emergencies, social media can be both a boon and a bane. A boon in a sense that it allows government to engage citizens in the emergency management by both disseminating information to the public and accessing information from them. A good example of this is Cebu Governor Gwen Garcia’s daily press conferences streamed live on Facebook. The governor has emerged as a comforting figure and unequivocal voice in this time of crisis.

The bane is that it is also during emergency events when people are exposed to and share large quantities of information in social media without being aware of their validity or risk of misinformation. But our experience shows that social media users are also usually swift to correct any misinformation, thus making the social media “self-regulating” (Simon, Goldberg, Adini, 2015).

Thus, the government can manage this crisis better if it concentrates its resources on health and economic response planning and delivering essential services. Going after critics, either the well-meaning or the miscreants --in the guise of fighting “fake news” and averting hypothetical threats of public disorder-- is a total waste of time and resources.

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