Children watch during a campaign rally of Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., son of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, in Manila, Philippines, April 23, 2022. (Reuters/Lisa Marie David)

‘Red-tagging’ of journalists looms over Philippine elections

As Philippine presidential candidates wind up their campaigns before the May 9 election, journalists in the country are demanding that whoever succeeds President Rodrigo Duterte put an end to “red tagging” –  the labeling of individuals as rebels or supporters of the communist insurgency – that helped put their colleague Frenchiemae Cumpio behind bars. 

Cumpio, the 23-year-old executive director of the independent news website Eastern Vista, has been detained for more than two years on an illegal firearms charge that colleagues and advocacy groups say was trumped up by authorities to silence her publication’s reporting on the Philippine military’s operations against communist rebels and associated human rights issues. The case is now being heard in court

Cumpio also faces terror finance charges for alleged involvement with the banned New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines that has been locked in an insurgent struggle against the government for decades. If convicted of “financing terrorism,” Cumpio could face up to 40 years in prison

The Altermidya network of independent media groups – which includes Cumpio’s Eastern Vista – said in a statement that the arms and terrorism charges against her were “wrongful,” based on “questionable witnesses,” and ultimately aimed to silence her reporting on “military abuses.” Rhea Padilla, Altermidya’s national coordinator, told CPJ other network journalists have been red-tagged and subjected to harassment, surveillance, cyberattacks, and have been “labeled as terrorists.”

“Red-tagging renders community journalists even more vulnerable to abuse and violence, exactly at a time we need for of this kind of journalism,” Padilla said. “One of the calls of the media community is for the next administration to end red-tagging, not just against media, but also against human rights defenders, critics, and activists.”   

The government of Duterte, who is constitutionally barred from running again after serving his six-year term, has used red-tagging to threatenharass, and, in Cumpio’s case, jail journalists. Red-tagging is especially dangerous considering the Philippine military’s alleged role in extrajudicial killings and torture of accused communists, according to Human Rights Watch.

After he was elected in 2016, Duterte sought to make peace with the long-fighting communist rebels. But when talks broke down, his government ramped up military offensives that many journalists reported were accompanied by rights abuses against local communities perceived by authorities as sympathetic to the communist movement. 

Duterte later made red-tagging de facto official government policy through the establishment of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, which is composed of former military and other government officials who use social media to accuse journalists, activists, politicians and others of association with the New People’s Army. 

These accusations have been leveled far and wide. Nobel Peace Prize and CPJ Gwen Ifill Press Freedom awardee Maria Ressa and her independent Rappler newsgroup have been red-tagged by Communications Undersecretary Lorraine Badoy, who in social media posts referred to Rappler as an “ally and mouthpiece” of the National People’s Army and Communist Party of the Philippines, according to a Rappler Facebook post.

Ressa, who has lodged a formal complaint with the Office of the Ombudsman for at least nine social media posts in which Badoy characterized her as an “enemy of the state,” is one of at least 11 people targeted by Badoy’s red-tagging to file administrative and criminal actions against Badoy, who also acts as the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict spokesperson.

Badoy, who has been quoted in recent state media reports as saying “there is no such thing as red-tagging,” did not immediately reply to CPJ’s requests for comments via email and Facebook messenger on the red-tagging-related complaints, including against Ressa and Rappler. The  Presidential Task Force on Media Security also did not respond to a request for comment sent via email. 

Jonathan De Santos, Secretary-General of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), told CPJ by email that his press advocacy group with journalist members nationwide has also been red-tagged by the Duterte government. 

In December 2019, NUJP accused the government of orchestrating red-tagging attacks against the group through “unscrupulous elements of the media” when several local tabloids published reports linking the union to communist groups. In May 2020, the Surigao Chapter City Police posted content on its official Facebook account accusing NUJP of having links with “terrorist organizations” including the New People’s Army, according to news reports

De Santos said while the previous Gloria Arroyo administration also red-tagged NUJP and many of its member journalists, the practice has been “more common and because of social media more widespread under the Duterte administration.”

“Red-tagging undermines press freedom first by labeling certain activist and civil society groups as ‘communist’ or ‘communist terrorist’ and therefore ‘dangerous’ to talk to or report on,” he said. “This could mean that valid issues and perspectives are kept out of the news since coverage could be – and has been – interpreted as acting as a ‘communist front.’”

“Red-tagging also undermines press freedom by putting journalists who are red-tagged at risk of online harassment as well as of intimidation and attacks offline,” De Santos said. “Even if these do not happen, the labeling of dissent and of reporting on that dissent as terrorism or support of it attacks the validity of issues raised and the credibility of the journalists reporting on them.”

Reporters, editors, and advocates have told CPJ that Duterte’s government uses a tri-pronged approach to intimidate the press characterized by verbal assaults, social media attacks, and threats to withdraw media groups’ licenses or impact their commercial interests to encourage self-censorship when reporting on sensitive issues including Duterte’s controversial drug war, a campaign that rights groups claim has led to thousands of extrajudicial killings.

Red-tagging has been part and parcel of the Duterte government’s and its supporters’ well-documented use of disinformation to discredit journalists, social media fact-checkers, and mainstream media, according to Greg Kehailia, Philippines director at media development organization Internews who spoke at a May 3 World Press Freedom Day webinar by the Asia Centre think tank.

Philippine journalists, advocates, and academics on the same panel expressed concerns that disinformation campaigns targeting the free press will continue under the next elected administration, particularly if front-runner Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, prevails in the May 9 presidential election.  

Several of the panelists noted that Twitter deactivated some 300 accounts promoting Marcos’ election campaign in January for violating its policies against platform misinformation and spam. Rival candidate and current Vice President Leni Robredo, her party’s candidates, and campaigners, meanwhile, have been red-tagged online and on the campaign trail, according to news reports.

“It’s going to be tougher under a Marcos presidency,” said Philippine Inquirer politics and technology reporter Krixia Subingsubing on the same Asia Centre panel. “But the mandate of our jobs won’t change in any way.”