Red-tagging, journalist attacks continue in Philippines – US report

Pia Lee-Brago - The Philippine Star
Red-tagging, journalist attacks continue in Philippines � US report
Demonstrators hold placards at a rally calling for justice following the murder of a Philippine radio broadcaster, in Quezon City in suburban Manila on October 4, 2022. A Philippine radio broadcaster and government critic was shot dead near his home in suburban Manila, police said October 4, the latest in a long list of journalists killed in the country.
AFP / Jam Sta. Rosa

MANILA, Philippines — “Red-tagging” persists under the Marcos administration, whose position on the practice – deemed intended to silence criticism of the government – is unclear, according to the US State Department’s latest annual country report on human rights practices released yesterday.

The same report also showed that physical attacks against journalists continue and several cases from previous years have remained unresolved.

In its report, the State Department also said red-tagging has been used to intimidate opponents in local disputes, or provoke legal action against political opponents.

The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), an anti-insurgency task force formed during the Duterte administration, is seen as the primary actor in red-tagging media workers and government critics.

Government officials and their allies often used red-tagging to label human rights advocates, unions, religious groups, academics and media organizations as fronts for or clandestine members of insurgent and other opposition groups.

In August, the Department of Justice charged 16 members of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines with financing communist insurgent groups.

“The Marcos administration’s position on red-tagging was unclear,” the report noted.

It also cited former National Security Advisor Clarita Carlos for condemning the practice in a June statement, saying, “Let’s stop red-tagging because it is not productive.”

Justice Secretary Crispin Remulla, however, dismissed the criticisms as he told the United Nations Universal Periodic Review of human rights in November that red-tagging is “used when a person belonging to a civil society organization is criticized for the work they’re doing as being related to the persons who commit criminal acts in our country.”

The State Department also noted civil society groups’ showing concern over the implementation of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, which they said contributed to red-tagging and was prone to abuse.

In April, responding to petitions filed by NGOs and opposition lawmakers, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the law’s definition of terrorism, deeming it “overbroad and violative of freedom of expression.”

Opponents argued the legislation could be used to tag some common speech or innocuous political activities as incitement to terrorism.

Some leaders of communist and leftist organizations, rural NGOs and human rights defenders complained of routine surveillance and harassment.

“Although the government generally respected restrictions on search and seizure within private homes, searches without warrants continued. Judges generally declared illegally obtained evidence to be inadmissible,” the report pointed.

Impunity remains

The government investigated some reported human rights abuses, including abuses by its forces and paramilitary forces, “but concerns about police impunity remained, given reports of continued extrajudicial killings by police.”

“Officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity,” the report said.

Major human rights issues in the Philippines included credible reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; forced disappearance; torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment by and on behalf of the government and other physical abuses by non-state actors; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary and high-level and widespread government corruption, among others.

The State Department report also highlighted the continued harassment of and physical attacks on journalists, usually by government officials and powerful individuals.

The report noted that while the Constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press, “threats and actions by government, allied groups and powerful individuals against journalists, media organizations, government critics and others continued.”

“Journalists continued to face harassment and threats of violence, including from individual politicians, government authorities and powerful private persons critical of their reporting. These abuses intensified during the election season,” the report pointed out.

The report noted that media generally remains free, active and able to voice criticism of the government, despite the chilling effect caused by the killings of journalists and political pressure on specific major media organizations.

On Oct. 3, radio broadcaster Percival “Percy Lapid” Mabasa was killed in an ambush on his way to work. Mabasa was a prominent radio host who reported on government corruption and had challenged the Marcos administration and the former Duterte administration on human rights and the protection of fundamental freedoms. He was the second journalist killed since President Marcos took office in June. Another radio broadcaster, Renato “Rey” Blanco, was killed in September.

The Philippine National Police (PNP) created a special task force to investigate Mabasa’s murder, admitting it was “highly probable” he was killed because of his reporting.

In November, the PNP and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) filed murder charges against suspended Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) chief Gerald Bantag, deputy security officer Ricardo Zulueta and 10 other prisoners after the self-confessed gunman linked them to Mabasa’s killing. Five journalists were killed between October 2021 and June 2022, reports said.

Cases filed

In March, Daily Tribune correspondent and Baguio Correspondents and Broadcasters Club president Aldwin Quitasol survived an attack by two unidentified assailants in Baguio City.

Expressing outrage over media harassment, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility said red tagging was part of the blame as it “endangers victims, including journalists, of being hauled to court on trumped up charges.”

The center also cited five incidents of surveillance, including police visits and vehicle tailing.

In its report the center said state agents, including local and national government officials and security and law enforcement personnel, were the leading perpetrators of threats and violence against media.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) noted that NTF-ELCAC openly called several journalists communist allies, “leading to a barrage of online harassment and threats against media workers.”

Meanwhile, the Philippines has defended its human rights record before the UN as it told the Special Rapporteur during a recent dialogue in Geneva that it values the role of human rights defenders as partners in building just and humane societies.

The Philippines said it acknowledges their role in “speaking truth to power and holding duty-bearers accountable for excesses and lapses.”

The Permanent Mission of the Philippines to the UN and International Organizations in Geneva participated in the Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders held on March 15 as part of the 52nd Regular Session of the Human Rights Council.

The Philippine Mission said the Philippines has a thriving and highly participative democratic space, with over 100,000 registered non-profit organizations, 60,000 of which are engaged in socio-political advocacy work domestically and in the UN.

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