Manila, Philippines – The arrest of former Philippines vice presidential candidate and renowned scholar Walden Bello on charges of cyber libel has raised concerns about freedom of speech under the new government of Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
Bello, who is also a prominent human rights activist, was arrested in his home in Quezon City late on Monday afternoon with City Police District Director Remus Medina promising “we will ensure the security of the accused while he is in our custody.”
Once he posted bail, 76-year-old Bello was released after spending roughly 24 hours in detention.
His lawyer, Luke Espiritu, told Al Jazeera he intends “to have this case thrown out in the shortest possible time. And for us to create a movement to assert our rights to free expression.”
The charges against Bello are linked to statements he made in the run-up to the election campaign about a reported drug raid on a beach party in southern Davao province that was attended by Jefry Tupas, a senior aide to Sara Duterte, daughter of former President Rodrigo Duterte and the newly-elected vice president.
Tupas, who was sacked by Duterte after the raid became public, filed libel and cyber-libel charges against Bello in March.
The ‘drug war’ was the signature policy of Rodrigo Duterte’s six years in office, and the Duterte family has made repeated claims about its success in cleaning up the drug trade in the southern city of Davao, where both father and daughter have been mayor.
Bello questioned that record after the raid and accused Tupas of being a “drug dealer”.
Leody de Guzman, Bello’s running mate in the election, condemned the arrest.
“Cyber-libel charges will never be just because clearly, the motivation behind this is political repression against critics,” he said. “Further actions like this by the regime will fail. We call for the dropping of the charges and the de-criminalisation of libel.”
Several prominent critics of the Duterte government have been hit with libel cases.
A court in 2020 found prominent journalist Maria Ressa guilty of cyber libel after a businessman filed a complaint against her in 2017, five years after the article had been published at a time when the law did not exist.
In July, the Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction of Ressa, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year.
The top Philippine court upheld online libel under the Cybercrime Prevention Act as constitutional back in 2014.
Legislators have been pushing since 2008 to decriminalise all forms of libel, and after the court’s decision to uphold Ressa’s conviction, Congresswoman France Castro reintroduced the bill.
‘Attack against democracy’
Human rights lawyer and former Philippines Congressman Neri Colmenares is among its supporters. He maintains cybercrime laws make it easier for any administration to silence opposition.
“It seems that the tyranny unleashed by the Duterte regime not only extends but might be getting even worse under the Marcos 2.0 government,” he said.
Bello’s arrest also raised concern elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
“Libel laws should not exist in a democracy worthy of this name, in which freedom of speech should be protected, not persecuted,” ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) Chair Charles Santiago said in a statement. “The use of this law against Mr. Bello amounts to an attack against democracy itself and the legitimate exercise of political opposition.”
Bello is on the board of APHR.
Focus on the Global South, a civil society organisation which was founded by Bello and where he also sits on the board, also questioned the arrest.
“His call for transparency in the November 2021 PDEA (Philippines Drug Enforcement Agency) drug raid allegedly involving Tupas, is consistent with his stance to push for justice and accountability in the so-called ‘war on drugs’ initiated by the Duterte administration,” the group said in a statement calling for the charges to be dropped.
“Simply for demanding the truth, Dr. Bello was unjustly arrested.”
Duterte and Bello traded barbs anew in the wake of the arrest.
The vice president called on her former opponent to face the consequences for his actions.
“Instead of deflecting blame, playing the victim of an imaginary case of political persecution, and dragging me into his legal woes, I suggest that Mr Bello be reminded of the fact that a civilised and democratic society does not respect hubris,” she said. “Mr Bello should focus on salvaging what remains of his dignity and self-respect, I am asking him to stop obsessing over me – and stop blaming me for his fall from grace.”
Bello, meanwhile, accused Duterte and the administration of weaponising libel as a form of “proxy harassment” by using a “former aide as a cover for her own vindictive behaviour”.
“Flowery rhetoric will not disguise Sara Duterte’s assault on a fundamental democratic right,” he said.