By Tanyalak Thongyoojaroen, Legal & Policy Intern
February 2023 marked three years in prison for Frenchie Mae Cumpio, a 24-year-old Philippine community journalist and executive director of the independent news website, Eastern Vista. In 2020, the Philippine government accused her of illegally possessing firearms and explosives; Cumpio was reportedly denied “the right to present evidence and prove the utter falsehoods against her.” She also faces politically motivated terror finance charges, which could land her 40 years in prison if found guilty.
Cumpio is one of many journalists “red-tagged” by the Philippines regime.
Red-tagging isn’t new to the country: Implemented in 1969, the government-backed campaign was designed to “tag” and counter communist and Maoist groups, particularly the New People’s Army (NPA). Red-tagging has since become a destructive tool to quash dissent. Under the former Duterte government and his National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), the regime has used the guise of red-tagging to crack down on activists and dissidents.
In the Philippines, anyone who criticizes the government can be red-tagged. The regime’s campaign includes falsely accusing journalists, activists, community leaders, and politicians of being members of or involved in the NPA. The government often starts by spreading lies or fake news about targets on public posters, television programs, or social media channels, branding them as terrorists or communist members or sympathizers. These widespread fabrications are often followed by threats or physical surveillance, eventually leading to attacks, arrest, detention, or death by security forces or “unidentified persons/groups.”
Since 2016, many human rights defenders, activists, and journalists have been killed after being red-tagged. Before the national election in May 2022, journalists, activists, and rights groups have called on the next president-elect to put an end to this practice. Yet, red-tagging and systematic persecution continues.
According to the Human Rights Foundation (HRF)’s political regime analysis, the Philippines is ruled by a competitive authoritarian regime in which freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are constantly under threat.
Following World War II, the Philippines became the first country in Southeast Asia to gain independence in 1946. The country held national elections, and its democratic system functioned effectively until 1965, when Ferdinand Marcos Sr. — father of the current president, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. — was elected. In 1972, Marcos Sr. declared martial law, granting sweeping permissions to the military to “prevent or suppress… any act of insurrection or rebellion,” dragging the country down the path of authoritarianism. Marcos Sr. heavily suppressed freedoms of expression, speech, and assembly. Opposition figures, activists, and all those deemed a threat to Marcos were arrested, forcibly disappeared, and subject to torture.
In 1986, a mass demonstration called the People Power Revolution, ousted the Marcos regime, though persecution against activists continues.
From 2016 to 2022, the Philippines, under the administration of Rodrigo Duterte, gradually slid back into authoritarianism. He introduced numerous repressive policies and threatened to execute human rights activists. His widely known “war on drugs” led to the death of at least 12,000 people, mostly the urban poor. The Philippines National Police carried out 2,555 of the killings. Duterte also renewed and intensified red-tagging to silence government critics. At the end of his rule, there were 801 political prisoners and 442 victims of extrajudicial killings — most of them red-tagged by the regime.
Last year, the country hoped to begin a new chapter with Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s election, but his government has yet to improve human rights.
Individuals who are red-tagged often end up being persecuted or even killed. Institutionalized in state policy, Philippines law enforcement officers have used red-tagging to intimidate and harass indigenous members, leaders, and activists who oppose government-backed projects.
National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC)
In December 2018, Duterte issued Executive Order 70 to “end 50 years of deceit, lies and atrocities committed by communist terrorists against the Filipino people.” In his Whole-of-Nation Approach, the regime launched the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict throughout the country (NTF-ELCAC), with 1.7 billion pesos ($31.2 million) allocated to the Task Force in 2020.
The Task Force red-tags in government press releases, conferences, and social media posts. The NFT-ELCAC Facebook page has approximately 191,000 followers, thus reaching a good portion of the population with regularly published posts with regularly published red-tagging posts.
Marcos Jr., is continuing the red-tagging campaign. In October, he appointed Lt. Gen. Emmanuel Salamat — a retired military general close to Duterte — as the executive director of NTF-ELCAC. In December, the Philippines Congress allocated 10 billion pesos ($178.5 million) to the “anti-communist” task force despite strong opposition.
Adopted in 2020, the Anti-Terrorism Act is an expansion of the “war on terror” to execute “enemies of the state.” The law is supposed to “protect life, liberty, and property from acts of terrorism . . . to make terrorism a crime against the Filipino people.” Critics say the law is a tool to silence dissent and target government opposition. And the ambiguity of the bill grants broad power to security forces to freely target, arrest, or detain suspected individuals without a warrant.
Since the law’s adoption, social movements and political activities have been discouraged. The Anti-Terrorism Council prohibited the public from providing financial and other material support to the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), the New People’s Army (NPA), and the National Democratic Front (NDF). Section 12 of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) states that “any person who provides material support to a terrorist individual or organization” will be sentenced to life imprisonment, and any persons who provide financial support to the group will be fined “at least 500,000 [pesos,] no more than 1,000,000.00 [pesos].”
With its vague and overly broad definition of “terrorism,” it allows security forces to detain suspects without a warrant or charges for up to 24 days. The law has been heavily criticized for equating activism to terrorism. Nationwide, security forces have arrested protestors against the Anti-Terrorism Act. Rights groups are concerned that, ultimately, the administration will use the bill to justify a lethal crackdown on human rights defenders and dissidents.
In recent years, the Philippine regime has targeted human rights defenders, journalists, the LGBTQI+ community, indigenous groups, and labor unions through its red-tagging campaign. Many of them have been harassed, intimidated. Some were even murdered at the hands of law enforcement officers or “unknown groups” likely linked to the government.
Red-Tagging of Human Rights Defenders and Activists
In 2020, longtime land rights activist and human rights defender Randall “Randy” Echanis was murdered in his hometown. His body was reportedly marked with multiple stabs and gunshot wounds. Before his death, Echanis was a staunch critic of the Anti-Terrorism Act.
Angelo Karlo “AK” Guillen was also red-tagged and threatened countless times. For years, Guillen advocated against the Anti-Terrorism law and worked as the counsel for indigenous people in prominent cases, including nine who were killed by police in December 2020. In December 2018, his photograph was featured in posters across Iloilo city, falsely labeling him as a member of the terrorist entity NPA, which has been declared as a terrorist entity by the Philippines regime. Two years later, in 2021, two men stabbed him as he was exiting his car.
Women activists have also been subject to gender-based violence and red-tagging. Online trolls have repeatedly attacked activist and politician Sarah Elago, claiming she was part of the communist groups trying to overthrow the government. In the last few years, her name has appeared in at least 14,000 Facebook posts, falsely linking her to the NPA. The posts have been shared widely with comments inciting violence and calling for Elago to be killed or raped.
Red-Tagging of Journalists
Violence and intimidation against journalists have also become common. Maria Ressa, a prominent journalist and 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was red-tagged by the government-back media platform, Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI). In a SMNI show, Lorraine Badoy, a former anti-insurgency spokesperson, criticized Rappler, the independent online media organization co-founded by Ressa, as being a “destroyer of the Philippines.” He also published content that branded Ressa as an “enemy of the state.”
Last year, at least four journalists were murdered, including Percival “Lapid” Mabasa. Mabasa devoted decades of his life to journalism, unmasking government corruption under the administration of Duterte and Marcos Jr. He was fatally shot near his home in October 2022. Police alleged that Gerald Bantag – the former director-general of the Bureau of Corrections under Duterte — was behind the killing.
As of May, the Justice Department’s Office of Cyber Crime saw 3,700 cyber-libel cases filed, including one against Maria Ressa. And the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines recorded 32 incidents of red-tagging and at least 23 journalists killed between 2016 and 2022.
Red-Tagging of LGBTQI+ Community
Despite its reputation as an LGBTQI+-friendly country, the Philippines lacks laws to protect members of the community. Abuse, harassment, and red-tagging against individuals based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression are common. Last year, the situation worsened under the SMNI’s smearing and fear-mongering.
Rey Valmores, activist and chair of the leading LGBTQI+ rights organization, Bahaghari (Rainbow) Philippines, was stalked several times by suspected security forces in 2020 and 2021. In November, Valmores and her group were red-tagged by SMNI, increasing their vulnerability to discrimination.
Irish Inoceto, Iloilo Pride Team Chairperson, was also red-tagged last year while advocating for the transgender community and gender-affirming policies in schools. SMNI falsely accused Inoceto of being a member of the Communist Party and weaponizing the LGBTQI+ agenda to recruit members for communist groups. Like Valmores, red-tagging exposed Inoceto to greater threats, intimidation, and other forms of violence.
Red-Tagging of Indigenous Groups
Between 2016 and 2021, there have been at least 126 cases of extrajudicial killings of members and leaders of indigenous communities after being red-tagged. Beverly Longid, a member of the Bantok-Kankanaey indigenous people and the international officer of Katribu (national alliance of Indigenous Peoples organizations in the Philippines), has long been a target of red-tagging. She has been subjected to harassment, intimidation, and threats. In 2018, Longid was among the leaders of Cordillera People’s Alliance (CPA), an independent federation of indigenous community organizations, named in a petition by the Department of Justice, condemning the CPP and NPA. Although her name was later dropped from the list, such threats continue.
Since Duterte’s government, red-tagging has become a deadly weapon to silence critics. Two accompanying mechanisms, the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) and the Anti-Terrorism Act, have allowed law enforcement officers and security forces to arbitrarily arrest, detain, and kill dissidents. Despite strong opposition from activists, journalists, and human rights defenders, red-tagging continues.
To curb the brutality of the regime, HRF urges the Philippines government to immediately end red-tagging against human rights defenders, activists, and journalists and stop labeling them as “terrorists.” The government should amend the 2020 Anti-Terrorism Act to comply with international human rights laws. And to promote the participation of its citizens, the State should ensure that rights groups, particularly indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities, LGBTQI+ community, and women’s groups, can exercise their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.