As the world bid adieu to the complicated year of 2020, many have come to express their New Year’s resolutions, hoping for change and a renewed sense of direction in life this 2021. Yet, it seems as if this sense of renewal is also, if not more importantly, required by institutions rather than individuals. In the context of the Philippines–already battered by the pandemic and a weakened economy–the widespread issue of red-tagging is one of many national problems that urgently needs a resolution.
The Supreme Court of the Philippines would define red-tagging as acts of labeling, branding, or accusing individuals or groups considered as ‘threats’ and ‘enemies of the State’ of being leftists, communists, or terrorists. What has made this issue even more controversial is that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP)–the same institution that usually commits this act–denies that it ever red-tags, and instead insists on “truth-tagging” those who have links to communist groups based on captured documents (READ: Gapay: AFP does not red-tag). Locally, there are cases where, even if a person has no clear links to communist and terrorist groups, he or she still ends up being wrongfully red-tagged and worse, killed.
A recent example of this series of red-taggings occurred last December 10, 2020. Lady Ann Salem, an editor of Manila Today who advocated for enhancing women’s role in media, was arrested in her home in Mandaluyong. She along with six others were denied legal counsel and allegedly charged with possessing illegal firearms and ammunition. This has only spurred much controversy with many believing that it was the authorities who had planted all the fake evidence.
On December 15, Dr. Mary Rose Sancelan, a city health officer in Guihulngan City, was shot dead along with her husband on their way home. As the only doctor leading the COVID-19 response in the city, Dr. Sancelan was mistakenly red-tagged by a local anti-communist vigilante group despite not having affiliations with communist groups. This was only followed weeks later on December 30 when a series of police operations on Panay Island led to the gunshot killings of 9 red-tagged IP (indigenous people) leaders said to have consistently opposed militarization and human rights violations.
With these tragic events, it has become easier to see how convenient it is for those in power to manipulate events in their favor by spreading the “nanlaban” narrative or sneaking false evidence into incidents as justifications for the arrests and killings. It doesn’t take much to realize that people in authority seem intent in silencing all forms of dissent. This is something of which is common for many dictatorships. Unfortunately, despite having moved on from an oppressive regime decades ago, the Philippines finds trouble in truly escaping the ghosts of the past.
One may think about questions, like, “Why should I concern myself with red-tagging, if I’m not involved in an organization nor a movement that goes against the government? I’m minding my own business, so what gives?”
While it is true that we are protected by the law from being unjustly treated by state forces, incidents of red tagging should be concerning for all citizens of a democratic country since it threatens and stifles our right to dissent. With their self-proclaimed authority to red-tag with little to no consequence, it’s now easy for the powerful to brand and harass innocent civilians, even those who have zero involvement in groups deemed as enemies of the state. If there had been several concrete cases in the past where individuals were wrongfully labelled as enemies of the state and persecuted for it, then what exempts us from being victims of the same?
We must understand that the many abuses committed in acts of red-tagging are a threat to our personal freedoms. Just because people believe in a cause or criticize the government for its neglect of human rights or environmental justice and more, doesn’t make them enemies of the state. In fact, isn’t this what citizens of a healthy democracy are mandated to do–to participate and to have a voice in the workings of government?
It is high time to put an end to the practice of red-tagging. More than urging the government to welcome criticism as an integral part of its development, we must collectively resist all forms of crackdown on activism and free speech. While it’s true that the government’s task is to protect its people from harmful entities, it becomes a paradox when the same government endangers its own people by heedlessly and sometimes, even deliberately, allowing red-tagging on its critics.
As a people, we must be vigilant in protecting our freedoms and remain steadfast in asserting our constitutional rights. Let us not allow those in power to get away with their acts of red-tagging. Let us demand action from our Supreme Court on the petitions filed against the draconian Anti-Terrorism Law which only serves to legitimize this dehumanizing political strategy.
If citizens protest with no intention of inciting violence, then they must not be greeted with batons and bullets. What we need to be awakened to is the one simple fact that we are all free to bring up our grievances to the state, and they do not have the right to take this freedom away from us since it has already been put to law. The government must realize that the true power of a democracy lies on the hands of its people.
This is the awakening that we need if we are to truly build back from the tragedies of 2020. Although the circumstances still look grim from here, the way forward requires that our government first respects individual human rights for everyone, regardless of social status and political belief. For what good is it to belong in a democracy that devalues the basic freedoms that our ancestors fought and died for?