Supreme Court of the Philippines

[Newspoint] A little walk-back

Vergel O. Santos

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[Newspoint] A little walk-back

Raffy de Guzman

Before the Anti-Terrorism Act, red-tagging was already standard malpractice. But that law has encouraged it even more by giving it a larger patriotic pretext – national security – at the same time practically legitimizing it.

It’s easy to understand why the Supreme Court ruling denouncing red-tagging has drawn reactions little short of ecstatic. 

Red-tagging is the weapon most widely deployed in suppressing political dissent; it is used in fact to trigger draconian policies and laws into operation against its targets. And the most arbitrary among those laws happens to be one affirmed by the Supreme Court over a huge righteous furor not too long ago – the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020. Declaring red-tagging now as a threat to “one’s right to life, liberty, or security” would seem for the court a sort of walk-back.

Despite its basic flaws, for one an inability to define the crime it proposed to punish as one requiring to be dealt with by a separate law, the Anti-Terrorism Bill took just one year for both houses of Congress to pass and for President Rodrigo Duterte to sign into law. Actually, the law simply takes crimes already in the books and reclassifies them as terrorism by virtue of motive. If any of those crimes looked as if they had been intended to upset national security, they constituted terrorism. In such cases, the normal judicial standards are inapplicable, and arrests may be made without warrants.

Before the Anti-Terrorism Act, red-tagging was already standard malpractice. But that law has encouraged it even more by giving it a larger patriotic pretext – national security – at the same time practically legitimizing it.

Duterte proceeded to go to town with it. He even built an army of trolls in order to take advantage as well of the new technology, which made red-tagging more efficient and red-taggers operating from cyberspace harder to track. 

And it’s no surprise at all that his successor has carried on after him: Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was groomed by a father who ruled as a dictator for 14 years (1972-1986) on the pretext of a communist insurgency gone out of hand. Digging in in light of the Supreme Court ruling, he reiterates his refusal to disband the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), the command post for red-tagging if there is one.

Enlisted in the service of an establishment indoctrinated against red, red-taggers operate from an antiquated perspective – to prevent communist contamination. Their usual targets are activist peasants and laborers and civil-society campaigners – community organizers, human-rights advocates, church people, and other humanitarians. 

The most ridiculous of recent cases involved four targets. They were arrested on the word of a soldier supposedly so keen-eyed, so keen-memoried, and so brave-hearted as to manage to get a photographic look at the faces of the enemies while shooting it out with them.

Red-taggers are lately being taken to court for defamation, and at least one has been ordered to pay compensation. But for a well-funded and obsessive operation, P32,000 is the equivalent of a slap on the wrist.

Still, with Duterte out of official power and his camp dropped from the ruling coalition, the courts are looking less pressured, as seems the case with the Supreme Court. But even if it could reverse itself on the Anti-Terrorism Act, that would be going against its grain, an embarrassing and agonizing case of withdrawal, I imagine. And, for the same reason, neither would Congress be up to a repeal.

Nor would the elite in general agree to any of that. The ruling class remains simply too hung up on the antiquated “red peril” to risk giving anyone who so much as leans left the same benefit of the doubt as it would give everyone else as a matter of simple fairness. Indeed, so fixated on the home-grown left, it is rendered blind to the authentic red Chinese elephant in the room, nay, all over the place, notably in the West Philippine Sea and on land by those waters.

Amid the general feeling of near ecstasy inspired by the Supreme Court, a more levelheaded appreciation of the situation manages to come through. Carlos Conde, Senior Asia Researcher for Human Rights Watch and a hard-nosed journalist himself once, is more judicious with credit. He simply notes that the court “acknowledges the suffering of the countless victims” of red-tagging.

The more activist reaction is the revived clamor to make red-tagging a crime. In fact, a bill for that, imposing a prison term of 10 years, has slept in the shelves of the Senate since 2021. It is now proving a worthy last hurrah for its author, Franklin Drilon, at the time Minority Leader in a house controlled by Duterte, the red-tagging president himself. Drilon retired the following year, the same year Duterte ended his own term. –

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