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Red-tagging, Fake News Amid ABS-CBN Shutdown Protested

Red-tagging, Fake News Amid ABS-CBN Shutdown Protested
Various groups, including the militant Gabriela Youth, rally in front of the Supreme Court calling for ABS-CBN Corp.’s franchise renewal on Feb. 26, 2020. Photo by KJ Rosales, The Philippine STAR

If something happens to student-journalists who oppose the shutdown of ABS-CBN Corp.’s broadcasts, the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication (UP CMC) said it would hold responsible the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) for tagging them as communist fronts – without citing any evidence other than their exercise of the right to criticize the government.

Let this be our final warning to the NTF ELCAC and Parlade: We take Red-baiting of our students seriously. An attack on our students is an attack on our College,” UP CMC said in a statement on May 13, referring to the spokesperson of the task force, Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade Jr.

It also decried the dangers its students face because of this, including their exposure to arrest, detention and even murder.

In an attempt to discredit the outrage over ABS-CBN’s shutdown due to Congress’ inaction on its franchise renewal application and the National Telecommunications Commission’s subsequent cease and desist order, NTF ELCAC accused several organizations of being “communist-linked groups exploiting ABS-CBN’s franchise issue.”

The task force, in its May 12 post, went so far as to single out two student organizations: the College Editors Guild of the Philippines or CEGP (an alliance of student publications in colleges) and the Union of Journalists of the Philippines (UJP)–UP Diliman (an advocacy journalism organization based in the UP CMC).

It included a veiled threat to ABS-CBN’s owners for courting support from the media: “The ABS CBN issue is about CPP (Communist Party of the Philippines’ propaganda, so it falls under NTF ELCAC's mandate. For so long as ABS owners, management and employees allow their issues to be exploited by the CPP NDF, yes you will continue to be persons of interest to us.”

The International Peace Observers Network (IPON) defines red-baiting as a “common strategy of state actors to intimidate and muzzle government-critical individuals, activists, human rights defenders as well as organizations who peacefully engage for their rights.”

“They are labeled as state enemies, communist terrorists or members of communist front organizations – labels that give rise to human rights violations in the Philippines,” IPON said in a 2011 journal.

The Philippines has consistently been among the worst five countries since the Committee to Protect Journalists began publishing its Global Impunity Index in 2008. CPJ noted that red-tagging puts journalists “in jeopardy of attack or arrest.” 

In 2008, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Philip Alston reported: “In some areas, the leaders of leftist organizations are systematically hunted down by interrogating and torturing those who may know their whereabouts, and they are often killed following a campaign of individual vilification designed to instill fear into the community. The priorities of the criminal justice system have also been distorted, and it has increasingly focused on prosecuting civil society leaders rather than their killers.”

Anti-communist propaganda

A week after ABS-CBN’s free television and radio operations stopped on May 5, NTF ELCAC justified its “meddling” into the issue by claiming that the CPP, the New People’s Army and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines “through its above and below ground organizations, will stop at nothing and will use everything to sow chaos and agitate and divide the Filipino people against its government.”

On May 10, another NTF ELCAC spokesperson, Presidential Communications Operations Office Undersecretary Lorraine Marie Badoy accused the following of ties to the communist movement: Bayan Muna, CEGP, Anakbayan, League of Filipino Students, Artista at Manunulat ng Sambayanan, Christians for National Liberation, and Lupon ng mga Manananggol Para sa Bayan.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, non-profit research institution Ibon Foundation, Artista, and human rights groups Amnesty International Philippines and Karapatan were also targeted in the statement. The statement included the word “etc.”

“Yes to press freedom,” Badoy said, even though the task force on May 6 said “press freedom is not dead” and refused to consider ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal problems as connected to it.

On May 12, NTF ELCAC posted the statement titled: “Reds freeride on ABS-CBN issue.”

Parlade admitted that his accusations were based on criticisms of the Duterte administration. He said: “We don’t need to red tag them. Just go to their websites and read how they build this franchise issue into an OUSTDuterte move.”

This time, he specifically named ABS-CBN News online columnist Inday Espina-Varona as a cohort of the CPP and dared her to “expose herself some more.”

Without citing any proof, he claimed the following organizations were “creations of the CPP itself”: Karapatan, National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, Anakbayan, and Bagong Alyansang Makabayan.

Also red-tagged by Parlade were alternative media websites focusing on marginalized sectors and progressive commentary, such as websites Bulatlat and Northern Dispatch, and outfits Altermidya Network, Kodao Productions, Tudla Productions, and Kilab Multimedia.

This was the second statement in which CEGP was red-tagged, and the first that mentioned UJP-UP.

Even though these organizations had not been declared by any court to be part of the communist movement, NTF ELCAC said it “is not picking a fight on the innocent media.”

“ABS-CBN workers and their media friends should know better. The CPP only wishes that the government will red tag all of them. But no, we want to isolate and secure them from Joma’s stooges. This is a showdown between Joma’s propagandists and the truth,” Parlade said, referring to CPP founder Jose Maria Sison.

College and students’ reactions

In a joint statement, the red-tagged media organizations called for continued support to ABS-CBN and said: “Parlade’s empty accusations should not deter the media from reporting the truth. Rather they should continue to monitor and hold government to account despite its concerted efforts to silence them.”

The UP Journalism Department, the Philippine Press Institute, International Association of Women in Radio & Television Philippines, Photojournalists’ Center of the Philippines, Let’s Organize for Democracy & Integrity, PinoyMedia Center, and UP Systemwide Alliance of Student Publications and Writers’ Organizations also signed the statement.

Other signatories include websites Manila Today and Pinoy Weekly and 33 student publications that include UP Diliman’s Philippine Collegian, UP CMC’s Tinig ng Plaridel, and University of Santo Tomas’ TomasinoWeb.

The statement described NTF ELCAC’s accusations as a “futile attempt to blindside the alternative media.” It said it was not surprising, given the “increasingly deteriorating state of press freedom in the country.”

“In the context of the Duterte administration’s weaponizing the public health emergency to further its goal of controlling information and public opinion, Parlade’s use of the ABS-CBN issue is just one more demonstration of its determination to silence dissent and free expression,” read the joint statement.

“Parlade’s empty accusations should not deter the media from reporting the truth. Rather they should continue to monitor and hold government to account despite its concerted efforts to silence them,” it added.

UJP-UP, in its individual statement in response to what it described as “unfounded and malicious” allegations, said: “We are compelled to speak truthfully and courageously. So, we will.”

The organization said the statements “only endanger the safety and security of our members, especially during widespread enhanced community lockdowns where countless threats and human rights violations have been made against critics of the evident flaws of the Duterte administration.”

It stressed that as a student formation based in UP CMC, “we are encouraged to speak the truth.” It said its efforts, like those of other campus publications and student organizations, were “motivated by our belief that the press must be in service of the masses in a society where power relations are disparate.”

It stood by its past statements and reportage and said “we continuously seek the administration accountable for its offenses as it fails to concentrate public resources on strengthening the response of the country against the pandemic.”

The organization called on student organizations and citizens to “use their voices in defending the freedom of expression and the press.”

“We, the members of UJP-UP Diliman along with other freedom-loving Filipinos, believe that it is not only our right but our obligation to speak out against the active efforts of the administration to undermine our fundamental rights,” the group said.

“In these trying times, succumbing to the chilling effect means giving up the fight for freedom of the press and the masses. More than ever, we must unite to collectively fight against the state’s red-tagging and censorship,” it added.

Expressing its support for UJP-UP, UP CMC said it “actually commends our students for their bravery as they face the bashing of mindless trolls, and now the Red-baiting of those who do not understand press freedom.”

Taking the cudgels for its students, it said: “The dangers notwithstanding, we encourage our students to fight for the right to information and free speech!”

UP CMC said the statements of UJP-UP and other college-based organizations “reflect what they learned within and beyond the four walls of the classroom.” The CMC’s Department of Journalism has been recognized by the Commission on Higher Education as a Center of Excellence.

“For the information of NTF ELCAC and Parlade, our students are guided by the College’s vision for a free and independent media which is hardly communist. They also emulate our faculty members and alumni who speak truth to power,” read the statement.

UP CMC said NTF ELCAC and Parlade’s statement endanger its students because persons accused of being communists could be arrested, detained or killed. It vowed to “protect our students’ basic rights, especially their freedom of speech and of expression.”

UP journalism professor and UJP-UP alumnus Danilo Arao stressed that the “burden of proof lies with the accuser” in light of the government’s resort to red-tagging.

Meanwhile, the UP Diliman University Student Council (USC) said the anti-communist task force “proves itself to be an enemy of the free press and of the people, as it targeted mostly media outlets and alliances.”

“They attempt to malign the media – that the Duterte regime turned against itself by attacking them and the people first – and take hold of the political narrative in the country. However, there will be no escape nor forgiveness for the fascists who strike at press freedom and our democratic institutions,” the student council said.

“This attack on UJP UP is an attack against us all. The UPD USC stands firmly with the people in defense of press freedom. We encourage all Iskolar ng Bayan to root themselves in the broad masses, and to remain militant in the face of state repression. History has proven the inevitability of the defeat of a dictator, and we shall prove it anew,” it added.

Fake news

Prior to the red-tagging spree, NTF ELCAC on May 9 shared false statements that it claimed were “key points” related to the shutdown of ABS-CBN’s broadcasting operations.

NTF ELCAC said that ABS-CBN’s request for the renewal of franchise was “disapproved” because of “legal issues.” The current House committee on legislative franchises did not actually do that; it had not yet finished its deliberations and had held only one hearing in March before ABS-CBN’s existing franchise expired on May 4.

Even the officials of the Duterte administration debunked the allegations of legal issues during the Senate’s Feb. 24 hearing.

The task force also claimed: “Gamit ang free air wave frequencies, pinagbayad ng ABS-CBN ang ilan sa sambayanang Pilipino upang magamit ang kanilang Kapamilya TV Plus at Black Box (Using free air wave frequencies, ABS-CBN made some Filipinos pay to use their Kapamilya TV Plus and Black Box).”

But the TVplus black box is actually the device allowing television sets to receive digital signals. Apart from a one-time payment to buy the device – like how television sets are normally purchased – viewers could watch nearly all of the niche channels for free. The only pay-per-view service offered through the TVplus black box was the Kapamilya Box Office service and the broadcast of a boxing match of Sen. Manny Pacquiao.

The Office of the Solicitor General raised specifically the KBO issue – not the act of charging payments for the TVplus black box itself, as NTF ELCAC claimed – in its quo warranto petition before the Supreme Court last February. However, NTC Commissioner Gamaliel Cordoba said in the Senate hearing that, at worst, ABS-CBN could be fined only P200 for introducing the KBO service without waiting for the agency’s guidelines.

Also on May 9, NTF ELCAC pounced upon an error by Rappler executive editor Maria Ressa, who mistakenly told the anchor of ABC News Australia that 11 million, instead of 11,000 workers of ABS-CBN could lose their jobs. The task force then claimed Ressa “spreads fake news.”

Both these posts were since taken down after the Presidential Communications Operations Office and Radio Television Malacañang drew flak for sharing them in their respective pages.

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility commented: “The Duterte administration has never pretended to be a press freedom advocate, with the President himself attacking journalists and news organizations for being critical of the government or for just reporting the truth. His animosity has become a model for other public officials, with even an anti-communist task force suddenly being involved in propaganda against the independent press and journalists.”