CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines – Journalist Leonardo Vicente “Cong” Corrales, the newspaper editor based in Cagayan de Oro who filed a case against Facebook owner Meta, sought refuge in a friend’s house away from the city after receiving a dubious, wanted poster-like computer printout that put a price on his head in 2019.
The printout was sent through courier to the Cagayan de Oro Press Club (COPC), where he served as one of 15 directors at the time. The printout had his photograph on it with a notice that there was a P1-million reward hanging over his head for a non-existent child rape and murder case.
The situation was embarrassing for Corrales, not only because he was a COPC director, but also because his late father, Emilio, was a pillar and once served as the president of the oldest and largest organization of journalists in the city.
The printout was just one of many that circulated in the city following a barrage of red-tagging posts against Corrales by trolls on social media.
On Friday, May 5, he went to the National Privacy Commission (NPC) to file an unprecedented complaint that could compel Meta to disclose information about the anonymous accounts that red-tagged him.
The red-tagging was torture for Corrales and his family. His wife and son, Lynyrd Alexsei, a former reporter who now works in the local Commission on Elections (Comelec) office, were also red-tagged.
There were other Cagayan de Oro-based journalists like Corrales who were red-tagged, such as Froilan Gallardo, Joey Nacalaban, and Pamela Orias.
They, including Corrales, shared two things in common: they all wrote for local dailies and were critical of the Duterte administration.
“It was scary. I got really scared,” said Orias, a former reporter of the now-defunct Sunstar-Cagayan de Oro.
Orias said the red-tagging stopped as soon as she quit journalism for good to work at the city hall after the newspaper shut down in Cagayan de Oro.
Gallardo, the most senior of the group, said he was red-tagged because of his local coverage of the ABS-CBN shutdown, a press freedom issue he was passionate about.
Corrales and his family, however, suffered the worst red-tagging among Cagayan de Oro journalists. Social media trolls posted their photos and called them a “family of communists,” which, in the Philippines, is often seen as synonymous with being New People’s Army (NPA) rebels, much like a scarlet letter.
“Until now, we can’t sleep well at night. When we are out together, we always keep our distance from each other for fear of an attack. In case something happens, at least one of us will be left to take care of the family,” Corrales’s wife Ailyn told Rappler on Friday.
The 48-year-old Corrales, she said, turned to alcohol to drown his fears and worries as a result of the Philippine version of McCarthyism that worsened during the Duterte administration.
There had been several waves of red-taggings of activists, lawyers, clergy, and lay workers in the city that almost always included Corrales.
Manny Jaudian, former COPC president, said: “It was terrible. All that Cong and other journalists did was their work. No one deserves that. Social media attacks like that only serve one purpose: weaken press freedom at the expense of the public’s right to know.”
The viciousness of the social media attacks became unbearable that Corrales took the first flight out of Cagayan de Oro as soon as journalist-friends offered him protection in the outskirts of Metro Manila in August 2019.
A former co-worker, who requested anonymity, took him in for about a month and two weeks.
“He was unnerved, and so he jumped on the first opportunity to leave Cagayan de Oro. He was worried about himself and his family’s safety in Cagayan de Oro,” Corrales’ friend recalled.
He said Corrales looked distraught when he flew back to Cagayan de Oro to return to his family and newspaper work.
“Cong had to return. It was something he had to do,” the friend said.
Ailyn said the first barrage of social media attacks on her husband followed an opinion piece he wrote for his paper, the Mindanao Gold Star Daily, about the oppression of a group of indigenous people who were driven from their homes.
In 2021, Corrales was red-tagged again along with University of the Philippines (UP) instructor Rene Principe Jr., who had set up a community pantry in Cagayan de Oro to help a community hurt by public health restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Corrales’ paper published the story about Principe’s initiative, which the UP instructor subsequently cut short as soon as the red-tagging started.
Carlos H. Conde, a senior researcher for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), said what Corrales experienced was the worst case of red-tagging of a journalist in Mindanao known to him.
Conde welcomed the complaint against Meta, saying that it was “extremely important because it opens an avenue for journalists [attacked viciously on social media because of their work] to seek redress.”
Conde said, “Whether Meta complies or not is going to be another matter.” But the Corrales complaint, he added, points to Meta as an entity that should be held accountable. – Rappler.com
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