Human rights activists say “red-tagging,” a tactic whereby individuals are labelled as communists or terrorists – often without substantial proof – is being increasingly deployed by government supporters and state officials in the Philippines.
The practice equates many left-wing activities with terrorism. Rights activists say it is now being used against doctors, activists, academics, students and journalists, among others. Rights groups say the tagging spree has led to a spate of unlawful detentions and killings.
Cristina Palabay, secretary general of the human rights organization Karapatan, told VOA at least 78 people have been killed as a result of either red-tagging or anti-terrorism police operations in the last year alone. There were also some 136 arrests, according to records compiled by the group.
"More and more people are now in the firing line - things appear to only be getting worse,” said Palabay.
Ibarra Gutierrez, a human rights lawyer and former member of the Philippine House of Representatives, told VOA that while the Philippines has a long history of red tagging, the current administration is the first to use the tactic openly.
“Red-tagging also occurred during prior administrations, but people at the top were still smart enough to distance themselves from it – they would not outright condone the killings.
“Now we have officials in government who regularly use the tactic themselves - the levels of shamelessness in the Philippines have reached an all-time high,” said Gutierrez.
For more than 50 years, the Philippine government has been mired in a civil war with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People's Army (NPA).
After peace talks to end the insurgency collapsed in 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte has since accused the CPP and other left-wing groups of trying to “overthrow the government.” The accusation comes alongside the enactment of a controversial anti-terror law in July last year.
Amid this heightened anti-terrorism campaign, those who express dissent may now find their names appearing on lists, street tarpaulins or Facebook posts, accusing them of being communist rebels. For some, the simple label is tantamount to a death sentence.
In a high-profile case last December, a red-tagged doctor and her husband were gunned down in broad daylight by unknown assailants in the city of Guihulngan. Dr. Mary Rose Sancelan - who had led her community’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic - had reportedly appeared on a list from local militia group ‘Kagubak,’ which baselessly claimed Sancelan had links to the NPA.
Some local rights groups have long asserted that a ‘culture of red-tagging’ is ‘state-sponsored,’ but presidential spokesperson Harry Roque has repeatedly denied claims of a government-led plan to accuse people of being communists.
While red-tagging has been embraced by many anti-communist groups, some Philippine state officials have also used the tactic.
Last month, Facebook pages belonging to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) published a list of academics and alumni from the University of the Philippines, claiming the individuals were either deceased or current NPA rebels.
In an online statement following his red-tagging in the now-deleted list, former Philippine Health Insurance Corporation CEO Alexander Padilla said: “I am appalled and disgusted [at] how [the] government cavalierly plays with the lives of innocent people. I am now anxious for me and for others on the list, whose lives are now placed in peril.”
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana called the list an “unpardonable gaffe,” while the AFP’s Civil Military Operations Office (CMOO) released a statement to “apologize for those who were inadvertently affected by inconsistencies.”
The CMOO also said that personnel responsible would be held accountable, with the Presidential Palace urging the military to ‘exercise prudence’ when disseminating information online.