Criminalize red-tagging? Lacson says Constitution will be his guide

Bella Perez-Rubio - Philstar.com
Criminalize red-tagging? Lacson says Constitution will be his guide
File photo shows Sen. Panfilo Lacson.
Ping Lacson Staff / Release, File

MANILA, Philippines — Sen. Panfilo Lacson on Thursday said he is studying a proposal to criminalize red-tagging, a practice that lawyers, rights groups, and government critics have said put people accused of being rebels and terrorists at risk.

In a statement, Lacson said he would use the 1987 Constitution as his ultimate guide in determining whether there is basis for banning state forces from publicly accusing individuals and groups of being communist rebels. 

"One major issue to be addressed if we are to criminalize red-tagging or red-baiting is if it will infringe on our Constitution’s provision ensuring freedom of expression and freedom of speech. This is a basic right that cannot be violated," a press release by his office quotes him as saying in an interview on DZAR radio. 

"That said, there are opposing views that such freedom is not absolute – that is why we have laws penalizing libel and cyber-libel," he also said.

It was, in fact, constitutional lawyer Antonio La Viña who appealed to the Senate defense panel on Tuesday to outlaw red-tagging "because it is terrorism in its worst form." 

La Viña, former Ateneo School of Government dean and who represents Rep. Sarah Elago and other red-tagged members of the Kabataan party-list, told senators that targeting the youth and threatening their safety imperils the very future of the nation. 

READ: 'Red-tagging brings violence,' Elago warns as PNP shares red-tagging content

The Commission on Human Rights added that red-tagging "continues to threaten life, liberty and security of human rights defenders across sectors." 

"It cannot be denied that tagging is a matter of serious concern that should not be taken lightly. Aside from the delegitimization of dissent and public stigmatization, it is more often than not a prelude or even an open invitation for anyone to commit atrocities against the persons tagged," CHR Commissioner Karen Dumpit said. 

READ: Activism and taking up arms vs government are different things, CHR stresses | As Senate holds hearing on red-tagging, Amnesty urges end to 'deadly practice'

Lacson said he and his legislative team are "poring over position papers and other materials gathered from all sides during the last three hearings on the issue." 


Although Lacson has said that he is considering the proposal, he and Senate President Vicente Sotto III were quick to make their reservations on the proposal known during Tuesday's hearing, suggesting that criminalizing red-tagging might not be reconcilable with the right to free speech enshrined in the Constitution. 

"It might go against freedom of expression, because if you're called a communist and the other side answers that you're a fascist, how will we position from there?" Lacson said in Filipino. 

Unlike activists and outspoken critics who are red-tagged, Philippine government officials who are accused of being fascists — having a belief in an autocratic government and the suppression of opposition — do not shortly after suffer violent repercussions.

Red-tagging also conflates activisim and membership in national democratic activist groups with taking up arms against the government despite the Bill of Rights guaranteeing that "the right of the people, including those employed in the public and private sectors, to form unions, associations, or societies for purposes not contrary to law shall not be abridged."

READ: Daughter of Bayan Muna solon dies in encounter with militaryAfter Duterte tirade, Makabayan bloc fears worst attacks to come 

Sotto echoed Lacson, saying "fascist-tagging" and red-tagging are the same and suggested that victims of red-baiting take their complaints to court by filing a libel case. 

"The Senate president has a good point but the problem is that red-tagging is different from the ordinary suggestions of a citizen. Red-tagging is the use of government funds...to vilify other people," Bayan Muna chairman Neri Colmenares, among those repeatedly red-tagged by military officials and their witnesses, replied. 

Colmenares challenged defense officials to file a case against those they accuse of being communist rebels instead of airing their grievances in the public sphere.

"There is no occasion when red-tagging can be allowed. If you really think your evidence is strong, go to the courts....Our challenge to them is: You imputed a crime, you file a criminal case," he said. 

Lacson also reminded the National Task Force to End Local Conflic (NTF-ELCAC) and its witnesses that, as the accusers, the burden of proof rests on them. 

RELATED: Citing killing of Zara Alvarez, Karapatan presses SC to grant protection writs

Lacson bristled when members of the Makabayan bloc chose to skip the hearing and in a letter to him said the proceedings had been "reduced to a venue for witch-hunting," in reference to the slew of accusations made by the NTF-ELCAC throughout. 

"Just because they cannot have it themselves, the Makabayan bloc now accuses the Senate of being a 'venue for witch hunting' in our red tagging inquiry. Looking for a scapegoat is normal for people who feel they were a bunch of losers," he said on Twitter Wednesday.

Rep. Carlos Zarate (Bayan Muna party-list) later clarified that he was referring to the conduct of defense officials and not of the panel. While he said he appreciated the clarification, Lacson said it still gives a wrong impression of the conduct of the hearings. 

In a statement released Thursday, Zarate backed the proposal to criminalize red-tagging, "in particular for government officials and employees who use government funds and resources to vilify and attack progressives, artists, critics of the administration, the political opposition and even ordinary people just for espousing their beliefs." 

"Government funds and resources should be used to improve the lives of the people and not to attack them with premeditated disinformation schemes, malicious innuendos, hearsays and fake news," he added. 

Lacson says 'bashed by both sides'

Lacson maintains that he is criticized by both sides for his so-called impartiality, saying that he has been "bashed by netizens and bloggers, including those against the government, and even those traced to the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Malacañang." 

"That comes with the territory. Given my decades in public service, I have accepted that I cannot please everybody, especially in such a sensitive issue. But with that said, considering that both sides are bashing me on social media means I am doing something right. Otherwise, if one side keeps bashing me and the other keeps praising me, that might be a sign of bias,” he said.

Lacson is one of the principal authors of the widely opposed anti-terror law at the Senate, the implementing rules and regulations of which allow the government to publish its list of suspected terrorists online and in the national dailies. Bayan Muna previously said that such a list would be the "mother of red-tagging.”

READ: Anti-Terrorism Council irons out delisting process as state allegations vs activists pile up






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