Lacson: ‘Red-tagging’ may be declared a crime

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, the chair of the Senate national defense and security panel, on Wednesday said “Red-tagging,” or the branding of government critics and activists as communists, or enemies of the state, could be declared a criminal act.

“As a matter of fact, I am seriously considering the recommendation to criminalize Red-tagging as long as such legislation will not infringe on the Bill of Rights involving freedom of speech and expression,” Lacson told reporters in a Viber message a day he had wrapped up hearings on the issue.

He did not say what may be the penalties.

Many activist groups and the Makabayan bloc in the House of Representatives say Red-tagging is largely used by the military and the police and their supporters to harass and intimidate them and in many instances has led to the assassination of some of their members.

President Duterte himself escalated enemy-branding on Monday when he directly identified the Makabayan bloc as a front of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).

Right to hold beliefs Sen. Risa Hontiveros said further study might be needed to determine if there was a need to criminalize that practice.

In an online interview, the Akbayan senator said “constitutional principles alone should suffice.”

“If we consider freedom of conscience and freedom of association, as long as one does not carry arms, everyone should be free from Red-tagging,” she said. “People have the right to hold beliefs as long as they do not commit any crime.”

Lacson’s committee had looked into the military’s allegations that progressive groups, including Makabayan, were linked to or were fronts of the CPP and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA).

The inquiry, however, devolved into accusations and counteraccusations between the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac) and Makabayan and its allied organizations.

“We will collate all the testimonies and documents submitted by both sides to the committee and thereafter come up with our conclusions and recommendations in our committee report,” Lacson said.

The Makabayan bloc is currently composed of six representatives from the party list groups Bayan Muna, Gabriela, ACT Teachers and Kabataan.

Lacson said the Senate inquiry had been fair “with all sides given their chance to air their concerns.

He took exception to Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate’s allegation that the inquiry “became a venue for witch-hunting.”

“Looking for a scapegoat is normal for people who feel they were a bunch of losers,” Lacson responded on Twitter.

But Zarate clarified that he was referring to the NTF-Elcac and security officials who used the hearings “as a platform to further vilify us with sweeping and baseless accusations, false statements and malicious innuendos.”

“In fact, we acknowledge Senator Lacson and the committee’s efforts to give us an opportunity to highlight the plight of the victims, to state our position and vehement objections on the Red-tagging and terrorist-tagging issue,” he said in a statement.

Bayan Muna chair Neri Colmenares said the party list and allied groups supported the criminalization of Red-tagging. He said this was a more definitive legal recourse than simply filing libel complaints against officials involved in branding critics of the administration as communists.

‘Budgetary hoax’

Red-tagging “entails the use of government resources and funds to target people based on their political beliefs,” and falsely accuses people as armed combatants, he said.

Such is an affront to the constitutional right to freedom of expression, Colmenares said.

Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman on Wednesday said he believed that the NTF-Elcac was using a “budgetary hoax” to justify its nearly P20-billion budget and vowed to scrutinize it as a member of the bicameral conference committee that would tackle the P4.5-trillion 2021 national spending bill.

“The Red-tagging initiated by the military and police against the government critics [is an] agenda to rationalize [the] billions [of pesos] of budgetary allocation for Elcac,” Lagman said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

A close scrutiny of the NTF-Elcac budget would ensure that “these funds … are not diverted to other programs and used for partisan politics or set as ‘parked’ funds for the 2022 national and local elections,” the Albay lawmaker said.

Lagman said the money allocated for the task force next year could be best used to fund the recovery of typhoon-damaged provinces instead of spending it in moves against Makabayan, students, religious leaders, politicians and movie personalities the NTF-Elcac had unfairly tagged as either members or sympathizers of the communist movement.

According to Lagman, Red-tagging sets up so-called enemies of the state for assassination and “has a chilling effect on the freedom of the press.”

Cristina Palabay, secretary general of the human rights group Karapatan, said criminalizing that act would “sanction abusive officials … that incite violence against human rights defenders.”

Palabay said the current Red-tagging spree was a prelude to the full implementation of the controversial antiterror law in 2021.

Colmenares believes that the vilification campaign against progressive groups and individuals is “clearly meant not just to stifle dissent but to cripple the opposition in 2022.”

“They have no other intent except for that,” he said.

Diversionary tactic

From her cell in Camp Crame, Sen. Leila de Lima, blasted the President for going on a “Red-tagging rampage” against Makabayan.

In a statement, the detained senator said the President’s tirade was “clearly a diversionary tactic.”

“Duterte’s blabbering is an everyday reminder of this administration’s failed pandemic response. The only thing he is capable of doing is to create distractions to mask his ineptitude,” De Lima said.

“Duterte should stop evading the issue on the persecution of the Makabayan bloc and critics and defenders of truth and human rights,” she said. —WITH REPORTS FROM KRIXIA SUBINGSUBING AND MAR S. ARGUELLES