Messaging
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - October 28, 2020 - 12:00am

In case you haven’t noticed, the Duterte administration has intensified the non-military component of its counterinsurgency campaign.

Affected groups are currently battling efforts of the government to cut off their funding especially from foreign donors, by classifying the contributions as terrorist financing.

The government has also launched a campaign to counter what it describes as communist propaganda and recruitment among the youth.

Inevitably in this rambunctious democracy, the effort has run smack into issues of freedom of association and expression as well as other rights.

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Those in charge of the government campaign are trying to draw a line between legal, non-violent activism and the radicalized version that supports armed struggle to overthrow the government and install a communist system.

Or at least this is what the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) is supposed to be espousing. I don’t know how much of the communist ideology – already discredited worldwide except in places such as China (hybrid form), North Korea and Vietnam – is actually supported by members or supporters of the groups “red-tagged” by the government.

What I’m sure of is that youths want the freedom to explore ideas, including Maoist and Marxist thought, until they develop the beliefs that would guide them through life. Some of them might eventually decide to join the CPP or its armed wing the New People’s Army (NPA). But this will depend on whether society, and the government, will give them reason to join the insurgency. Social injustice is a key driver, and it’s not surprising that we now have the longest running communist insurgency in the world.

People, especially, youths typically don’t like anyone who gets in the way of this exploration of ideas, including their parents. When the government tries to “isolate” them from the radicalized ideologues who have taken up arms to overthrow the system, it will need targeting that is as precise as laser surgery.

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This laser precision has been lacking from the government’s campaign. And the problem is compounded by muddled messaging. This is evident in the handling of actress Liza Soberano’s attendance at a webinar on the welfare of the girl child, sponsored by women’s party-list group Gabriela.

The group has been tagged by the government as one of the “legal fronts” of the CPP-NPA and their political arm the National Democratic Front (NDF).

In a statement, Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade, chief of the Armed Forces’ Southern Luzon Command, said: Liza Soberano, there’s still a chance to abdicate that group. If you don’t, you will suffer the same fate as Josephine Anne Lapira @ELLA, former Deputy Secretary General of Gabriela Youth of UP, Manila and defender of women’s rights, even against sexual predators amongst her comrades in the NPA unit she joined which is clearly stated in her handwritten letter addressed to a certain @EMIL. It’s a pity she learned about nonsense things like nabbing a firearm, exploitation while already inside the underground. It was too late, she is dead.

Parlade insists it wasn’t a warning but an advice. With the right choice of words, the message might have come off as an advice, a genuine expression of concern over the perils of becoming entangled in armed violence in pursuit of legitimate causes. Instead it came off as an indication that the government is scared of Darna (one of Soberano’s movie roles).

Malacañang claims Parlade has been told to shut up by higher-ups. But the best proof that he has not been gagged by the commander-in-chief and defense secretary is that he continues to give media interviews. Last Monday night Parlade faced us on Cignal TV/OneNews’ “The Chiefs.”

Parlade is one of the two spokespersons for the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict. The acronym alone – NTF-ELCAC – tells you that the task force has a problem with messaging. In mass communication class, we were told to keep the message simple and catchy for strong recall.

But no matter: Parlade is at his job, unapologetic, undeterred by those who see him as the creature from hell, come to red-tag every group, every person deemed to have links to armed insurgency.

Parlade stresses that the government wants to “isolate” the underground armed struggle from peaceful activism and dissent. This is a delicate, challenging task that needs effective nuancing and getting the message across.

The NTF-ELCAC will need a spokesperson with better communication skills. The Philippine National Police, with all its tokhang issues, has had two such accomplished spokesmen: Maj. Gen. Benigno Durana Jr., now retired, and his replacement Brig. Gen. Bernard Banac.

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Despite the opprobrium heaped on him, Parlade seems happy enough that he has started a spirited public discussion on the issues involved.

As Parlade is pointing out in his interviews, it’s the first time that the government is launching an active effort to counter what it considers as a highly developed propaganda machinery of the communists.

The counter-propaganda is combined with an aggressive campaign to cut off funding, both domestic and foreign, to about 30 organizations tagged by security forces as legal fronts of the CPP-NPA-NDF. Several of these supposed fronts are among the petitioners in the lawsuits filed at the Supreme Court, challenging the constitutionality of the Anti-Terrorism Act or Republic Act 11479.

RA 11479, among other things, gives the Anti-Money Laundering Council the power to quickly freeze the assets and look into the financial transactions of groups classified by the Anti-Terrorism Council as a terrorist organization. Groups have expressed concern over the membership of the ATC and its basis for the classification.

The Paris-based Financial Action Task Force had threatened to place the Philippines this year under a gray list of money laundering havens if the country didn’t pass a measure against terrorist financing.

Classifying donations to the “legal fronts” as terrorist financing could stop the flow of funds especially from abroad. It could also be cited by local companies that refuse to give in to NPA extortion, cloaked as (forced) collection of “revolutionary taxes.”

I know businessmen and even ordinary folks with relatives in the provinces who want an end to the revolutionary “taxation,” and an end to the torching of business establishments and equipment of those who reject the extortion.

I can also believe Parlade’s claim that there are parents who worry about their children’s involvement in certain progressive groups linked to the communist underground.

As the tempest over Soberano has shown, however, the counterinsurgency campaign needs finessing and surgical targeting. Especially because careless tagging may put lives at risk, merely for membership in a particular group.

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