EXPLAINER: ‘Red-tagging’, its dangers, and the bodies proving its existence

Members and supporters of the communist party of the Philippines' armed group, the New People's Army (NPA) march toward the peace arch for a protest near Malacanang Palace in Manila on March 31, 2017. The practice of
Members and supporters of the communist party of the Philippines' armed group, the New People's Army (NPA) march toward the peace arch for a protest near Malacanang Palace in Manila on March 31, 2017. The practice of "red-tagging" where an individual or organization is branded either as a communist or terrorist is dangerous with some cases leading to deadly consequences. (Photo: TED ALJIBE/AFP via Getty Images)

From bookstores to individuals to the Vice President of the country herself, many have been "red-tagged" by state agents, with some leading to death.

But what is "red-tagging"? One may ask. What makes it so dangerous that everyone who has been subjected to it cries for safety?

Red-tagging, also known as red-baiting, refers to the blacklisting of individuals or organizations critical or not fully supportive of the actions of the incumbent government administration in the country. The groups and individuals subjected to it are “tagged” as either communist or terrorist, regardless of their beliefs or affiliations.

According to international organization Human Rights Watch (HRW), red-tagging has been used for decades in the Philippines in the government’s campaign against the communist New People’s Army (NPA).

“The government’s counterinsurgency efforts include publicly accusing activists, journalists, politicians, and others and their organizations of being directly involved in the fighting or supporting the NPA. The Philippine military has long been responsible for large numbers of extrajudicial killings and torture of alleged communists,” HRW’s report read.

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) heeds the definition of the term ‘red-tagging’ by the International Peace Observers Network (IPON), which defines it as:

“An act of State actors, particularly law enforcement agencies, to publicly brand individuals, groups, or institutions as… affiliated to communist or leftist terrorists.”

‘Death warrant’

Rights groups such as Karapatan alliance assert that re-tagging equates to a death warrant, especially under the Duterte administration.

Baseless accusations lead to abuses under the Anti-Terror Law and Executive Order No. 70, which establishes the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), which basically legalizes human rights violations on the critics of the administration.

Civil society groups have called for NTF-ELCAC to be defunded or abolished. Domestic human rights groups contend that the task force’s red-tagging often precedes violence against those tagged.

In a video by Human Rights Watch, Cristina Palabay, secretary-general of Karapatan, described how she was harassed and threatened with rape and violence as part of the red-tagging. She said that one does not simply red-tag her without a threat following through.

Moreover, the Anti-Terror Law or the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 has been hovering over activists despite continuous calls to declare the law unconstitutional amid worsening attacks against progressives.

On March 2, 26 groups filed a joint motion for reconsideration citing the Law’s unconstitutionality of issuing warrants under Section 25 and the expansion of the period of warrantless detention for terror suspects to a maximum of 24 days under Section 29 of the law.

“The ATC’s arbitrary designation powers, and expanding the period of warrantless detention are not only unconstitutional: they are the terror law’s most dangerous and draconian provisions which infringe on our basic rights and freedoms, enable red-tagging, and engender Marcosian atrocities and abuses such as torture, enforced disappearances, even killings,” Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay, one of the petitioners, said.

Furthermore, the motion noted that red-tagging has in many instances preceded the extrajudicial killings of activists and human rights defenders, with Booc, also a petitioner against ATA, being one of the victims paraded as ‘terrorists’ by the military.

The petitioners also cited the recent killing of Chad Booc, a teacher in the countryside who has been long subjected to red-tagging by state agents, was killed along with another teacher and three civilians in a massacre in New Bataan, Davao de Oro. The government, unsurprisingly, labeled it as an armed encounter between the military and the NPAs to justify the massacre.

Forensic pathologist Raquel Fortun, however, said that based on Booc’s autopsy, the Department of Justice (DOJ) should investigate a homicide by the military.

Threats to numbers

The government asserts that “the term red-tagging is just a tool of front organizations of the communist party.” They further said that there is no such term, as identifying people as members of the communist party poses no danger to their lives and security.

On Thursday (March 23), after concerned citizens filed three separate complaints before the Ombudsman against NTF-ELCAC Spokesperson Lorraine Badoy, the serial red-tagger retaliated saying that “No one is red-tagging.”

She further asserted in a statement that the term is just a cover of the “CPP-NPA-NDF to silence those who speak against them.”

However, the dead do not lie.

In data released in 2021, Karapatan said it has documented 424 extrajudicial killings, 504 frustrated extrajudicial killings, 1,159 illegal arrests and detention, and 2,807 illegal arrests without detention.

Among those who were killed after being repeatedly red-tagged were long-time peasant organizer and peace consultant Randy Echanis, Karapatan human rights paralegal Zara Alvarez, nine Indigenous Peoples (IPs) leaders, nine Southern Tagalog activists in the Bloody Sunday Massacre, and Dr. Mary Rose Sancelan with her husband Edwin.

Dandy Miguel, a union leader and longtime labor rights activist in Laguna was killed on March 28, 2021, 3 weeks after the Bloody Sunday Massacre in the neighboring provinces in Calabarzon. He was wearing a union shirt bearing the words “Sahod. Trabaho. Karapatan. Ipaglaban” (Fight for Wages, Work, Rights) when he was shot while riding his motorcycle in the streets of Laguna.

Affected groups and individuals

Red-tagging chooses no one except when you call for recognition of your rights or call out the administration in their wrongdoings, then you are branded as fronts, supporters, or sympathizers of the NPA.

Organizations frequently subjected to this dangerous tagging are:

  • Human rights organizations and advocates

  • Indigenous people rights activists

  • Labor unions

  • Progressive lawyers and judges

  • Journalists

  • Writers and authors

  • Religious organizations

  • Humanitarian activity groups

  • Progressive public servants and personalities

In recent events, community health worker and human rights advocate Dr. Natividad “Naty” Castro was illegally arrested and detained after being repeatedly red-tagged for her work on the countryside.

Progressives have long been calling for the stop of red-tagging as it endangers their lives and the lives of their families. One cannot just deny the existence of ‘red-tagging’ because of the existing numbers, and dead bodies proving the term’s grave dangers.

Pola Rubio is a news writer and photojournalist covering Philippine politics and events. She regularly follows worldwide and local happenings. The views expressed are her own.

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