Lives in danger as red-tagging campaign intensifies

MANILA, Philippines – The bare concrete wall in front of a chapel made the scribbled accusation against the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) as brazen as can be.

Scrawled in blue paint, the color of hope, the words “IFI = NPA” stood out in stark contrast for the entire community in Zamboanga del Sur to see. The Aglipay church was being accused of being part of the communist movement.

This is not the first time that the church has been tagged as being a member of the Communist Party of the Philippines’ New People’s Army (CPP-NPA). Such public accusations have been rampant in several towns, mostly in Mindanao.

IFI Pagadian Bishop Antonio Ablon believes the church's social and mass actions, including solidarity missions, that cater to communities affected by widespread militarization are the reasons why they are targeted. 

Ablon himself is no stranger to red-tagging. In 2019, his name was included in lists of "terrorist members of the CPP-NPA" anonymously circulated in Cagayan de Oro City, together with members of media and progressive groups. 

"Syempre natatakot kami pero habang natatakot tayo, mas nangingibabaw iyong pagpatuloy iyong mga gawain (Of course we're afraid, but the feeling of wanting to continue our work dominates the feeling of fear)," he said. 

Red-tagging, as defined by the Supreme Court, refers to “the act of labeling, branding, naming and accusing individuals and/or organizations of being left-leaning, subversives, communists or terrorists (used as) a strategy...by State agents, particularly law enforcement agencies and the military, against those perceived to be ‘threats’ or ‘enemies of the State.’”

On February 13, the IFI became the subject of another red-tagging threat when alleged members of the military showed a video identifying key church officials as "active NPA supporters."

Obispo Maximo Rhee Timbang, the leader of the IFI, strongly condemned the act. 

"We gravely denounce this continuing act of labeling and red-tagging that endangers the lives and security of our clergy and lay in the IFI who are simply doing their best to be faithful to their vocation and ministry," he said on February 17.

The IFI leadership's fear is not unfounded, knowing all too well the dangers of supporting social causes. In 2006, former obispo maximo Alberto Ramento was stabbed to death due to his work for social justice.

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) has warned about the severe implications of red-tagging on the safety of human rights defenders, adding that "these attacks are in the context of increasing number of reported extrajudicial killings in rural areas alongside the intensified counterinsurgency program of the government." 

Red-tagging is just the beginning of abuses, according to Ibon Foundation, a policy research group that is also being targeted by government officials, most notably by Southern Luzon Command chief Major General Antonio Parlade Jr, a key figure in the state's anti-communist movement. (READ: Ibon Foundation: Duterte gov't 'red-tagging' meant to silence dissent

"It is easy to see red-tagging as merely the paranoid defense of an adoring government propagandist or the result of small-minded militarist thinking where every Leftist is an enemy to be neutralized," the group said.

"Unfortunately, the red-tagging of the Duterte administration is much more and, clearly, just the first step of a much larger and more sinister agenda," it added.

Since 2016, more than 3,000 have been arrested over trumped-up charges, the worst compared to the administrations of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Benigno Aquino III, according to rights group Karapatan. (READ: Duterte's war on dissent)

Not illegal in PH but...

Communism is not illegal in the Philippines after Republic Act 1700, a law signed in 1957 to counter the anti-Japanese-turned-CPP-armed-wing Hukbalahap, was repealed. 

Even Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, in August 2019, said that mere membership to the CPP is not a crime "unless overt criminal acts are committed."

But the decriminalization of communism in 1992 did not stop authorities from arresting individuals as part of its anti-insurgency campaign, with charges ranging from illegal possession of firearms and explosives, to kidnapping and murder, among others. 

The Duterte administration took it a notch higher in the aftermath of failed peace talks, assaulting all fronts groups deemed to be critical of the government, labeling them as having a role in the communist movement. (READ: The generals' coup in 2018: Duterte breaks up with Reds)

"At the outset let me state that red-tagging endangers the lives of those subjected thereto," National Union of Peoples' Lawyers (NUPL) secretary-general Ephraim Cortez said. 

"Red-tagging is being used to justify attacks and harassments against activists, and government critics," he added.

The government attempted to tag the CPP as a terrorist group and tried to label hundreds of individuals as terrorists. At least 60 organizations, including a religious group providing education in rural areas, were tagged by the military as communist fronts, an effort to cut their financial lifeline. 

While talks of reviving the anti-subversion law did not move, in its place operates Executive Order No 70, which created a national task force that seeks to address causes of armed conflict with communists at the local level. (READ: Creating a Marcos? Reviving the anti-subversion law under Duterte)

But EO 70, according to human rights groups, only led to massive red-tagging, threats and harassment, and increased presence of the military and police, under the guise of a counterinsurgency program.

Colleges and universities also did not escape the wide net cast by the government. In 2018, the military said that communist rebels are tapping students in 10 universities for an alleged ouster plot against Duterte, a claim vehemently denied by students.

State agents recently ramped up their raids on homes and headquarters of progressive groups, allegedly under the guise of preventing crimes. 

Just last February 7, 5 people – including an Altermidya Network correspondent – were arrested during what military reports tagged as a raid on "identified Communist Terrorist Group safe houses" in Tacloban. 

The subjects of these arrests, together with other progressive groups, also face massive vilification on social media, particularly on Facebook, where Duterte allies resort to posting photos and identifying them as members of the CPP-NPA. 

Beyond arrests

The danger of being red-tagged, regardless of the medium, does not end with arrests. For many activists, it has cost them their lives. 

According to Karapatan, at least 167 have been killed since 2016. The killings exist alongside the thousands under Duterte’s anti-illegal drugs campaign – all part of the culture of impunity. 

In the first month of 2020 alone, at least 3 peasant organizers were killed, allegedly by state agents.

Emerito Pinza and Romy Candor, both from the Pinagkaisang Ugnayan ng mga Magsasaka sa Laguna (Pumalag), reportedly lost contact with their families in January. 

According to Karapatan Southern Tagalog (ST) spokesperson Kyle Salgado, their bodies were found only on February 4 after a fact-finding mission saw the group and the family go from police stations to military camps, to cemeteries. 

The bodies of Pinza and Candor were found to have been buried under different names at the Calamba Municipal Cemetery. 

But Police Brigadier General Vicente Danao Jr, regional director of Calabarzon Regional Police Office, who tagged the two as "communist rebels," insisted that they were given a decent burial because they are still our countrymen.

Sila ay mga biktima din lamang ng mga kasinungalingan at panlilinlang ng makakaliwang grupo (They are also victims of lies and deception of leftist groups),” he said in a statement 

On January 31, meanwhile, Jay-Ar Mercado, peasant leader and member of Bigkis at Lakas ng mga Katutubo sa Timog Katagalugan (Balatik), was doing field work in Oriental Mindoro when he was killed.

His body was allegedly hastily buried without his family’s consent.

Cantain Jayrald Ternio, head of the public affairs office of the 2nd Infantry Division, told Rappler that they have not received any information about the incidents. 

CHR, meanwhile, is currently investigating the cases of killings. It also condemned the “judicial harassment, arbitrary arrest and criminalization of human rights defenders” in the Philippines, urging the government to stop any form of violations.

“Some government officials have tried to connect human rights defenders with communist groups and terrorist organizations among others to pursue a politically-motivated defamation campaign against them,” CHR spokesperson Jacqueline de Guia said. 

“We also demand the authorities to recognize the legitimacy and importance of their work and to cease stigmatization of these individuals which could incite perpetrators to act against them.” 

Fighting back

But the fight against red-tagging, or any threats on groups, remains to be a difficult task, especially under an administration where a culture of impunity dominates.

One of the most immediate actions to do, according to groups, is to end the implementation of EO 70. 

Even CHR echoed the calls, asking government to "rescind the policy as it has been consistently used to justify threats and intimidation of individuals and organizations working for the improvement of the human rights and welfare of various marginalized, disadvantaged, and vulnerable sectors of society."

NUPL is exploring the possibility of filing a criminal case, a civil case for damages, and an administrative case against officials involved in red-tagging.

"There are constitutional and legal provisions that protect citizens against this kind of acts by the government," NUPL's Cortez said. "The only question is whether our judiciary and the administrative tribunals will act in accordance with these constitutional and legal safeguards to protect citizens and to hold accountable those involved in these illegal acts."

In May 2019, the Supreme Court issued a writ of amparo and habeas data in favor of Karapatan, Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, and Gabriela. It, however, did not provide a protection order.

In July 2019, the Court of Appeals denied the petition of Karapatan for protection orders, reasoning that red-tagging “has no direct relation to the circumstances of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.”

PRECAUTION. Members of the Commission on Human Rights conduct an ocular inspection at the IBON Foundation's office in Quezon City on November 8, 2019. File photo by Maria Tan/Rappler

PRECAUTION. Members of the Commission on Human Rights conduct an ocular inspection at the IBON Foundation's office in Quezon City on November 8, 2019.

File photo by Maria Tan/Rappler

Ibon, for its part, filed an administrative complaint at the Office of the Ombudsman against key officials, including Parlade, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, and Communications Undersecretary Lorraine Badoy for their persistent red-tagging. 

It wants the Ombudsman to "punish" the officials for their conduct that is "grossly disregardful of the public interest, unprofessional, unjust and insincere, politically biased, unresponsive to the public, distorting nationalism and patriotism, and undemocratic."

Parlade, in a statement, said there's nothing new in the complaint. 

In the absence of help from the courts, several progressive groups took the initiative of opening their offices to inspection by the CHR, in a bid to prevent the planting of evidence against them.

Despite the blatant threats, Salgado of Karapatan ST said that he expects a lot of people to join the cause, especially given the situation the Philippines sees itself in.

"Sa ganitong panahon, grabe 'yung krisis pang-ekonomiya, soberanya, mismong demorasya, higit lalo tayong kailangang tumindig at harapin ang pulitikal na panunupil at atake ng estado," he said.

(At this time, given the economic, sovereign, and democractic crises, all the more we need to stand up and face political repression and attacks from the state.)

For Ablon, the rampant red-tagging and heightened threats are an opportunity for the Aglipayan faithful to learn more about the issues the church is fighting. 

"Nagtatanong iyong mga member ng simbahan kung bakit ba ito ginagawa sa atin, kaya tayong mga pari, ine-explain natin kung ano ang mga isyung hinaharap ng Pilipinas at kung bakit kailangan tayo magsalita laban sa mga paghihirap na ito," he said.

(Members are asking why the church is being targeted, so we priests explain the issues the Philippines is facing and why we need to speak up against these abuses.) – Rappler.com 

TOP PHOTO: END. The National Council of Churches in the Philippines and its member churches, Iglesia Filipina Independiente and the United Church of Christ in the Philippines holds a press conference in Quezon City, denouncing the red-tagging and human rights violations committed by the military. File photo by Maria Tan/Rappler

Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and also hosts the weekly podcast Newsbreak: Beyond the Stories. She joined Rappler in 2014 after obtaining her journalism degree from the University of the Philippines.

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