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Investigative News Site in Philippines Fights 'Red-Tag' Accusations

The Philippines news website Bulatlat, seen in a screenshot taken July 26, 2022, has been blocked by the Philippines National Telecommunications Commission over accusations that it supports "communist terrorists."

A Philippines news outlet investigating human rights abuses has seen traffic to its site drop by over 40% after accusations that it supports "communist terrorists" resulted in a web ban.

Run by a team of volunteer journalists, the news website Bulatlat has made a name for itself by covering underreported issues including mistreatment of health workers, corruption, and the rights of women and Indigenous communities.

At the start of June it had an average of over 50,000 monthly users, but that figure dropped dramatically after the Philippines National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) blocked access to the site.

In early June, the NTC ordered internet service providers (ISPs) in the Philippines to block more than 20 websites, including Bulatlat, that it said were supporting or linked to "communist-terrorists."

FILE - Hermogenes Esperon Jr.
FILE - Hermogenes Esperon Jr.

Hermogenes Esperon Jr., then the National Security adviser, signed the order.

Bulatlat, which denies links to terrorism, said in a statement no evidence was cited in the order.

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders described the move as "yet another example of 'red-tagging'" — a decades-long practice where media, activists and others are accused of links to Communist parties and groups in the Philippines.

The Philippines has been fighting the New People's Army — an armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines — for five decades. And the government in 2018 formed the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict to eradicate any communist rebellions.

But journalists and rights groups say that task force also labels critics as having terrorist links.

"If we have a big story, [the Task Force] will refute it and label us as terrorist or supporters of Communist insurgency of the Philippines," Janess Ellao, a reporter for Bulatlat, told VOA.

Sometimes, the accusation comes after a journalist covers militias.

Ellao said she was accused of supporting terrorist factions after she embedded with communist groups in Mindanao to report on militarization.

"Those who want to investigate human rights violations in those communities, sometimes they are subjected to surveillance or subjected to being attacked or labeled … as someone providing support to the armed communist insurgency," she said.

Neither the Presidential Communications Operations Office nor the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict responded to VOA's emails requesting comment.

The country's new national security adviser has indicated that she plans to end the practice of red-tagging.

For now, Bulatlat is trying to appeal the ban.

The site's editor, Ronalyn Olea, testified in a Quezon City court on July 13 that the website's monthly unique visitors dropped by 43% between June 8 and July 7 because of the order.

War on critics

Bulatlat and its journalists have been accused of terrorist links previously and come under cyberattack from troll farms.

The attacks send a "message that anyone who practices independent journalism would be targeted. And that's very chilling," Olea told local media last month.

The Philippines has a long history of red-tagging, according to Daniel Bastard, the Asia-Pacific director for RSF.

"Under Ferdinand Marcos, everything that wasn't pro-government was deemed anti-government and pro-communist," Bastard told VOA in a phone call. "That's where this red-tagging phenomenon came, it was really a label that authorities would put on some people, who were dissidents, who were not [toeing the] line of the government and that's basically where it comes from."

After Marcos fled in 1986, after two decades of rule marked by human rights abuses and corruption, the Philippines opened up, with democratic elections and a free press.

But, said Bastard, the use of red-tagging against government critics returned.

FILE - Philippine's then-President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his annual state of the nation address at the House of Representatives in Manila, July 26, 2021.
FILE - Philippine's then-President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his annual state of the nation address at the House of Representatives in Manila, July 26, 2021.

"Things started to polarize in the year 2010, more or less. And a bit like under Ferdinand Marcos, everything that that wasn't pro-Duterte was deemed anti-Duterte," Bastard said.

Danilo Arao, an associate editor at Bulatlat, said red-tagging became "intense" and more "brazen" under then-President Rodrigo Duterte, with accusations made against media outlets and journalists, including himself.

"In relation to my work at Bulatlat, I was once tagged as one of those involved in a move to oust Duterte," said Arao, who is also a journalism professor at the University of the Philippines.

In 2019, a graphic published by the Manila Times identified 58 people, including Arao, said to be part of a movement to destabilize the government.

Arao described the allegations as "ridiculous and laughable" but, he said, "It was very dangerous for our safety and security as we could be targets of state agents."

New direction

On June 30, Ferdinand "Bong Bong" Marcos Jr. — the son of Ferdinand Marco Sr. — was inaugurated as president, returning the Marcos family to power after more than three decades.

His newly appointed National Security Adviser Clarita Carlos has said she wants red-tagging to stop, saying the practice is counterproductive.

Journalists at Bulatlat hope that could ease the pressures they are under.

"It's already under review. We're hoping the review will lead to them revoking the request," said Ellao, referring to the website block.

While Bulatlat's team wait for their appeal against the ban to be heard, the website is using circumvention methods, including mirror sites, to reach audiences.

"Fortunately for us, we have been able to launch the mirror site right away," Ellao told VOA, adding that their social media sites remain accessible.