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The PNR has been operating for many decades, providing a fundamental transportation service to Filipinos from Ilocos to the Bicol region.

Red-tagging a missionary nun in the Philippines

BY GREG CASTILLA – The recent red-tagging of Sr. Mary John Mananzan, a Missionary Benedictine Sister from St. Scholastica’s College of Manila, by Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) Undersecretary Lorraine Badoy does not surprise me anymore. In fact, I expected it, given the propensity of the military, government officials, or paid trolls to red-tag activists.

Sr. Mananzan, a political activist since way back during the time of the Marcos dictatorship, is a staunch critic of the current Duterte administration. She is not the typical nun that many of us know. She speaks her mind fearlessly. She marches to protest the absence of justice in a country that prides itself to be democratic. She has been at the forefront in the struggle for human rights for decades. She co-founded Gabriela, the federation of women’s organizations and was its national chairperson for many years. She has gotten so many accolades from reputable national and international organizations for her social justice work. She is an educator, an author, and a theologian.

For being outspoken, she was recently red-tagged by Usec. Badoy for calling out Judge Rainelda Montesa who found journalists Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos, Jr guilty of cyber libel.

The government appears to be on a warpath against its critics. I consider it a sign of weakness rather than of strength, of insecurity rather than of stability, when a government resorts to red-tagging to sow fear among activists or anyone who has an ax to grind against the government. What’s the government afraid of? Is it losing control?

Red-tagging is not new in the Philippines. It was used by the dictator Marcos during the entire Martial Law years to intimidate his critics. It was like a warning for activists to better behave or else. Almost five decades later, red-tagging is back in full force under the Duterte administration.

What is red-tagging?

Marvic Leonen, Supreme Court Associate Justice,  defines red-tagging as “the act of labeling, branding, naming and accusing individuals and/or organizations of being left-leaning, subversives, communists or terrorists (used as) a strategy…by the State agents, particularly law enforcement agencies and the military, against those perceived to be ‘threats’ or ‘enemies of the State.’”

Red-tagging has the effect of endangering the life of an individual.  Anybody can be red-tagged at the whims of the military or any group with egregious intent without any evidence.  Once an individual is red-tagged he or she can be arrested anytime by the police or the military or even summarily killed on mere suspicion of being a subversive, a communist, or a terrorist.

When a group of us was organizing the squatters in Tatalon, Quezon City, during the Martial Law years to fight for their land, we were red-tagged as communists by the military. The thought that we could be arrested anytime for no reason was scary. I became overly suspicious of individuals I did not know to the point of being paranoid. It had a debilitating effect on one’s psyche, knowing that one could disappear anytime as a victim of the military, buried somewhere in a far-flung place. This happened to a few people I knew.

Since the possibility of being apprehended or salvaged hung over our heads like the sword of Damocles, many of us had no choice but to join the underground movement. There was no other option. It was the only way to evade the rampaging military and continue our organizing work. Being red-tagged during the Marcos era was, for all intents and purposes, a form of death sentence.

Fast forward to 2020.

The red-tagging of Sr. Mananzan is just one in a long list of red-tagging under the Duterte administration. Stories of activists being red-tagged, then illegally arrested and sometimes killed extra-judicially are documented by human rights organizations.

The killing of Jory Porquia last May, an activist during the Marcos dictatorship and coordinator of Bayan Muna in Iloilo, is an example of how red-tagging has led to his death.

According to reports, Porquia was red-tagged in March 2018 and in December 2019. His name and picture appeared on a poster together with well-known leaders of the people’s movement in Panay. Prior to his death, he was harassed by the police for conducting feeding programs for the urban poor communities affected by Covid-19.

I remember reading early this year how the entire Iglesia Filipina Independiente, popularly known as the Aglipayan Church, was red-tagged as being a member of the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army (CPP-NPA). Church officials believed that their social work in militarized areas was the reason why they were targeted.

Three months ago, the UP Manila University Student Council issued a statement claiming that its members were red-tagged and sent death threats after they initiated to help donation drives for the health workers of the Philippine General Hospital.

The list can go on and on and the fallout is often deadly.

Under the new Anti-Terrorist Bill (ATB), awaiting signature by President Duterte, Sr. Mananzan or any member of the Aglipayan Church and the UP Manila Student Council can be arrested without any warrant and detained for a maximum of 14 days (original law was 3 days), extendable for another 10 days; they can also be branded as terrorists by the Anti-Terrorism Council for intimidating “the general public, create an atmosphere to spread a message of fear…” and be subjected to 24-hour surveillance.

From the way it looks, it appears that once the ATB is signed by President Duterte, the government shall have taken red-tagging a notch higher by giving it more teeth, and giving the current and future presidents enormous power to intimidate, harass, and arrest government critics under the pretext of them being communists or terrorists.

As the late Senator Emmanuel Pelaez once asked, “What’s happening to our country?”