Red-tagging, the practice of publicly shaming and targeting an individual for allegedly sympathising with Communists, is increasingly commonplace in the Philippines. Journalists, academics, and students are at risk of facing jail sentences and physical violence without due process. However, it is unlikely that an external power will intervene to curb this ever-common practice due to the Philippines’ critical geostrategic and geopolitical stature in the Indo-Pacific.

What’s happening with red-tagging in the Philippines?

On 24 March, Philippines Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon filed a measure seeking to penalise any state agent convicted of ‘red-tagging’ with up to 10 years imprisonment. Senate Bill 2121 will disqualify the convicted employee from ever holding public office again and was put forward to stop the “institutionalisation and normalisation of human rights violations”. Drilon stressed the bill was a reminder to government officials that their primary duty was to serve and protect the people.

Indeed, red-tagging is a rampant problem in the Philippines. The practice consists in targeting individuals bylabelling them as communists or terrorists – most times without proof. It is widely used by President Duterte, his administration, and political supporters. The practice is aimed at crushing dissent and equates left-wing activities to terrorism. Human rights activists allege this tactic is being deployed against doctors, activists, academics, students, and journalists, amongst others.  

The process of red-tagging follows a specific pattern. First, lie about the targeted individual surface and enter the public sphere. Their faces are plastered on fliers and posters, branding them terrorists and/or terrorists sympathisers. Next, these lies appear on social media, and are amplified by pro-government accounts and government officials. This usually leads to either an arbitrary arrest, or assassination.

According to Karapatan, a human rights organisation, in 2020 alone, 78 people have been executed by police forces during red-tagging and anti-terrorism operations, in addition to 136 unlawful arrests. The UN human rights office said in March 2021 it was “appalled” by the arbitrary killing and detention of activists during police-military operations. Indeed, on 7 March, eight men and one woman were killed during nocturnal raids. The victims included labour rights activists, who dealt with issues relating to the fishing communities, and advocates for housing rights of people rendered homeless. 

Fake news have a human cost.  

The case of red-tagging in the Philippines is a stark reminder of the nefarious power of fake news, when deployed by powerful actors. In the Philippines, 97% of the population uses Facebook— the main means of communication used by Duterte, his spokespeople and ministers. These individuals have all spread and repeated unfounded accusations against their opponents, and independent journals such as Rappler routinely fact-check their content.

In the West, we are no strangers to post-truth politics, the phenomenon in which politicians appeal to emotions to frame debates by exploiting and taking advantage of cleavages. Arguably, the Trump presidency had a dramatic impact on the normalisation of fake news and their appearance in traditional media. Indeed, regimes around the world watched as a US president – traditionally the head of the world’s ‘policeman’ state – now openly accused government critics of being ‘fake news,’ and gave weight to conspiracy theories by maintaining an ambiguous position. Of course, one cannot forget Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts.”

Post-truth politics is not new per se, but the advent of social media and alternative digital news outlets have expanded its reach exponentially. Politicians campaign against someone or something, each purporting to represent and defend the interests of a certain group by amplifying their message through digital tools. In the Philippines, President Duterte exploits decades of civil war against Communist forces to stir up crowds and rile them up against government critics. 

Indeed, one of the most serious consequences of this phenomenon is it gives rise to vigilante groups. In the Philippines, citizens and police forces effectively have carte blanche on targeting alleged drug dealers and alleged communists. Regardless of the perpetrator, post-truth politicking has a serious human cost. 

What happens next? 

Red-tagging is unlikely to dissipate in the near future. In fact, the Duterte administration has been carrying out a relentless antiterrorism campaign since July 2020, when a controversial anti-terror law was passed. This law has caused an uproar, as its definition of ‘terrorism’ is quite broad and encompasses political dissent. Moreover, there is a provision that allows for longer detention without an arrest warrant, nor judicial intervention. 

Back in 2017, talks with rebels from the Communist Party’s armed wing, the New People’s Army  (NPA), collapsed. Since then, Duterte has repeatedly accused the Communist Party of the Philippines and left-wing groups of trying to “overthrow the government.” These accusations have also been levelled against dissidents and government critics, in what has been described as a ‘state-sponsored’ culture of red-tagging. 

Human rights lawyer Ibarra Gutierrez argues the Philippines has a long history of red-tagging, but the Duterte administration is the first to use it openly. It remains to be seen if the worsening Covid situation will bring about a change, but Duterte presents himself as a strongman leader backed by police and military forces. Moreover, the US needs a stable Philippines to maintain a balance of power against Chinese influence. It is therefore unlikely we will see a foreign intervention, as regional security imperatives are likely to prevail. 

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