A Duterte task force accused of red-tagging critics of the President is part of the government's "strategic communications" for the coronavirus health crisis.
An early April resolution of the Inter-agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) states that the National Task Force on Ending Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) has been ordered to help in the government's coronavirus messaging.
IATF Resolution No 22 orders NTF-ELCAC to strengthen its "risk communication operations" as part of the government's information campaign during the pandemic.
The resolution said that the IATF approved a recommendation to "intensify risk communication operations of the National Task Force on Strategic Communications (STRATCOM) and the NTF to End Local Communist Armed Conflict STRATCOM cluster to achieve information transparency and manage the public's expectations."
The recommendation came from the National Security Council, which is led by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. Esperon is also vice chairman of NTF-ELCAC.
What's NTF-ELCAC? NTF-ELCAC is a task force created by Duterte back in 2018 to fight communist propaganda, but it's also been slammed for red-tagging progressive groups and journalists critical of the government. Its official Facebook account has posted misleading accusations about embattled broadcast giant ABS-CBN and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa, among others. (READ: Duterte's final gambit to end insurgency: Task force vs communists)
It's also amplied government messaging trying to link critical bloggers and media personalities to the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). One of its spokespersons, Presidential Communications Undersecretary Lorraine Badoy, has accused activist nun Sister Mary John Mananzan of supporting a "communist terrorist organization."
The Duterte government has sought to declare the CPP as a terrorist group. With the newly-signed anti-terrorism law, if the courts grant the government's request, anyone the administration perceives as helping communists could be treated as suspected terrorists. This means possible surveillance, warrantless arrests, and more.
Coronavirus and communists: what's the connection? So what's the NTF-ELCAC doing in a government entity in charge of crisis communications during the pandemic?
The responses Rappler got from various officials were baffling.
Roque, who leads the COVID-19 StratCom, confirmed that the NTF-ELCAC is part of his team but they don't contribute much.
"They are part but have no authority to speak either for IATF or government," he told Rappler.
Asked what the NTF-ELCAC does for the StratCom group, Roque said, "Not much."
Presidential Communications Undersecretary Joel Sy Egco, who Roque said attends the StratCom meetings for the NTF-ELCAC, said he doesn't recall any of the NTF-ELCAC spokespersons, Badoy and Major General Antonio Parlade Jr, ever joining the meetings since he himself began attending starting late March.
He then said that the COVID-19 StratCom is "focused only on COVID-19 response."
Asked what then happened to the recommendation in IATF Resolution No 22, Egco said, "I think that was discontinued."
But NTF-ELCAC spokesman Parlade has a different take.
He said the NTF-ELCAC's role is to fight communist propaganda exploiting lapses in the government's handling of the pandemic.
"Propaganda has always been the CPP's means to destroy and discredit the government. Any lapse in the implementation of anti-COVID measures is exploited by the Left to highlight government's inefficiency in handling the crisis," he said.
The NTF-ELCAC StratCom's role is to "help clarify the agenda of the Left when they criticize government."
Part of that job, said Parlade, is to inform the public of government efforts in order to counter the "falsehoods and lies" communists supposedly spread.
A look at NTF-ELCAC's social media accounts show they have been focused on promoting the anti-terrorism law and defending it against critics. These accounts had also red-tagged persons or groups who took a stand against the shutdown of ABS-CBN and arrest of Maria Ressa, controversies which happened in the middle of the pandemic.
For instance, back in May, an NTF-ELCAC Facebook post claimed that University of the Philippines mass communication students were exploiting the ABS-CBN shutdown to uphold communist ideals.
In response, the UP College of Mass Communication issued a strongly-worded statement condemning NTF-ELCAC for red-baiting students who were merely expressing legitimate dissent and standing up for press freedom.
This is not the first time the government has framed criticism against the Duterte presidency as support to communism. Malacañang itself has tried to link journalists and progressive groups critical of the government to a "plot" to oust Duterte. – Rappler.com
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.