What is red-tagging and why it is dangerous in the Philippines?

Placard calling for justice for Chad Booc in New Bataan. Image by Ryomaandres from Wikimedia Commons. Used under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

Human rights defenders in the Philippines have cried foul over the restoration of the PHP 10 billion (USD 178.56 million) budget for a government task force known for red-tagging activists and civil society organisations. The bicameral committee has decided to allot the sum in 2023 for the National Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) despite calls to defund and abolish it.

Human rights alliance Karapatan pointed out in a statement, “The NTF-ELCAC has gained notoriety for red-tagging, harassing and intimidating political activists and other government critics and for instigating forced mass surrenders of civilians alleged to be supporters of the revolutionary movement. Many of the victims of NTF-ELCAC’s red-tagging campaigns had ended up arrested and detained on trumped-up charges, while others have been killed by vigilante groups or in armed encounters staged by the military.”

Red-tagging or red-baiting is the act of labeling individuals or groups as “communist fronts,” “communist-terrorists,” or “communist sympathisers,” and has been rampant in recent years. Much like McCarthyism in the 1950s, red-tagging in the Philippines is often done without providing evidence.

Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, in a dissenting opinion in 2015 on a petition for protection filed by human rights lawyers, quoted former UN Special Rapporteur on extralegal killings in defining red-tagging. “As stated by (UN Special Rapporteur Philip) Alston, it is the ‘vilification,’ ‘labelling,’ or ‘guilt by association’ of various democratic organizations. These groups are stereotyped or caricatured by the military as communist groups, making them easy targets of government military or paramilitary units,” Leonen said.

Alston, who conducted an investigation on the spate of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines in 2007, observed how state security forces maintained an “order of battle,” or a list of individuals suspected to be linked to the Communist Party of the Philippines and New People’s Army. In his 2007 report, Alston enumerated several recommendations for the Philippine government, which included “immediately directing all military officers to cease making public statements linking political or other civil society groups to those engaged in armed insurgencies.” He added, “Any such characterizations belong solely within the power of the civilian authorities. They must be based on transparent criteria, and conform with the human rights provisions of the Constitution and relevant treaties.”

Fifteen years after Alston’s visit, the practice of red-baiting has not stopped. With the utilization of social media, unfounded accusations are spreading like fire. The red-taggers, mostly government officials, state security forces and their trolls, amplify their narratives through social media platforms, particularly Facebook and YouTube, which are quite popular in the Philippines.

University of the Philippines journalism professor Diosa Labiste likened red-tagging to disinformation, which she said: “is made up of false or fabricated accusations disseminated by trolls online.” She added, “It has from minimal to almost no basis in fact. It also vilifies activists, critics of the administration and journalists. And, similar to hate speech, it uses threats, harassment, some even resulting in arrests and deaths.”

According to Karapatan, at least 427 activists were red-tagged before they were killed. Take the cases of peace consultant Randall Echanis and human rights worker Zara Alvarez. Both of them were included in a list of at least 600 people who the Department of Justice (DOJ) asked a court to declare “terrorists” in 2018. The DOJ petition was eventually junked, but Echanis, Alvarez and five others on that list were gunned down, according to Karapatan. Teacher for indigenous peoples in Mindanao Chad Booc was red-tagged before he was killed in an “encounter” with security forces in February 2022.

Red-tagging has contributed to the shrinking of civic space, as it enforces a chilling effect on civil society. Even journalists and media organisations have not been spared from being linked to the communist movement for reporting about the armed conflict. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (Focap) and members of the Altermidya-People’s Media Network have repeatedly been red-tagged by NTF-Elcac and its former officials via television network SMNI.

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) argued that red-baiting has added to the perils that Filipino journalists have to grapple with. The group maintained that “red-baiting has had a deleterious effect on the exercise of press freedom vital to truth telling and democratic discourse.”

One of the red-tagged journalists, Frenchie Mae Cumpio, was arrested on February 7, 2020, on bogus charges of illegally possessing firearms and explosives. She remains detained in Tacloban City jail and was subsequently slapped with a charge of financing terrorism. Another journalist, Kimberlie Ngabit-Quitasol of Northern Dispatch, was also red-tagged, and then charged with cyber libel. Fortunately, after two years, the case filed against her and another colleague by the former regional police chief has been dismissed for lack of evidence.

Scores of red-tagged journalists have had to relocate as a security measure, affecting the valuable work that they do.

Over 20 websites, including those of red-tagged media outlets such as Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly, have been ordered blocked by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) for allegedly being “terrorist friendly.” Then National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. cited resolutions of the Anti-Terror Council (ATC) designating the CPP, NPA, NDFP and alleged leaders of the communist movement to justify the blocking. The CPP, however, said that only seven in the list of censored websites are affiliated with the CPP.

With the enactment of the Anti-Terrorism Act in 2020, red-tagged individuals and groups face the risks of being subjected to surveillance, freezing of assets, and restriction of movement, among others. The law contains draconian provisions that human rights defenders have continually questioned.

In the recently concluded fourth cycle of the Universal Periodic Review on the Philippines, Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla justified red-tagging as “part of democracy.”Several member states of the UN were not convinced and called on the Philippine government to stop the practice and review the Anti-Terrorism Act. While Remulla claimed “there is no state policy to attack, harass or intimidate human rights defenders, including environmental rights defenders, lawyers and other practitioners of the legal profession, and the media,” the continuous funding of the controversial task force is very telling.

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