Sotto unimpressed by bid to criminalize red-tagging

Senators were asked on Tuesday to pass a law that would criminalize the red-tagging of activists and human rights advocates, but Senate President Vicente Sotto III is not convinced by their arguments.

Sen. Vicente Sotto III (Senate of the Philippines / MANILA BULLETIN)

At the resumption of the Senate defense committee's inquiry on the supposed red-tagging activities of the government security sector, Commission on Human Rights (CHR) Commissioner Karen Dumpit said that while it is the prerogative of Congress to define and determine acts of red-tagging, state-backed campaigns against individuals cannot be equated to freedom of speech.

"Of course 'yong (the) govenment-funded vilification campaign cannot be equated with normal expression of ordinary citizens," Dumpit said.

"It is not against freedom of expression because free speech is not absolute, we all know that. It cannot be exercised to the detriment of others and in this case, those who suffer from human rights violations as a result of red-tagging," she added.

Citing the commission's report, she said red-tagging -- or the labelling, stereotyping or accusing of individuals and groups as left-leaning, subversive or communists and terrorists -- is used by military and paramilitary units so it would be "easy" for them to silence government dissenters.

The CHR official told the Senate panel this should not be taken lightly, as it "continues to threaten life, liberty and security of human rights defenders across sectors."

Whether committed by the government or non-state actors, "it cannot be denied that red-tagging is a matter of serious concern", she added. "It is a prelude or even an invitation for anyone to commit further atrocities against the persons tagged."

"If we can expedite the passing into law of the human rights defenders bill and with that bill, we can indeed seek to criminalize red-tagging to ensure the protection of human rights defenders and the prosecution of perpetrator of violations against them," Dumpit appealed.

In the same hearing, Ateneo School of Government dean and lawyer Antonio La Viña likewise appealed to the Senate to criminalize red-tagging "because it is also terrorism in its worst form."

La Viña particularly raised concern over the red-tagging of student activists and youth groups.

"When you do that, you endanger them. I will be very honest that one of my responsibility as a lawyer and teacher is to make sure that they survive any moment of time of the Philippines because we need every young person to counter what I think are really very serious problems," La Viña said.

"And red-tagging them, accusing them in a baseless way, endangers their future and endangers the country," he said.

'Why not just file libel?'

But Senate President Vicente Sotto III seemed cold to the appeal of the human rights advocates.

"I think, why don't you just file libel case? Because if we criminalize red tagging, we have to criminalize 'narcissist'-tagging and 'fascist'-tagging? Samantalang (When) it falls in the category of libel, eh 'di file-an na lang ng libel (then just file a libel case)," Sotto said.

"That's a food for thought for those being called 'reds', I don't know why. Instead of having Congress discuss it and file a bill criminalizing red-tagging which, at this point, would be very difficult to do. I think so," he continued.

Former Bayan Muna representative and lawyer Neri Colmenares, who attended the Senate inquiry, said red-tagging should not be compared to libel.

Red-tagging, he pointed out, involves the use of government funds and public resources to "vilify other people."

"So hindi siya pareho ng (it is not the similar to) freedom of expression," Colmenares said.

He also noted that ordinary people would find it difficult to counter claims from government officials as they will not have the immediate resources to file and pursue charges.

Authorities could also easily claim that they acted in good faith, and that they were just doing their duties, even when malice was clear, he said.

Sotto, in response, said government officials are not exempt from libel charges.

Government security officials and their witnesses maintained during the Senate hearing that they are not engaged in red-tagging and they were only telling the "truth" about members of the Makabayan bloc and progressive groups.  President Duterte himself said so in his latest television address.

Meanwhile, opposition Senator Francis ‘’Kiko’’ N. Pangilinan today expressed his condolence to the family of Jevilyn Cullamat of the New People’s Army, who was killed during an encounter between the military and NPA.    

 ‘’Tatay rin ako. Hindi ko mawari ang sakit at lalim ng sugat ng mga iniwan niyang mahal sa buhay,’’ Pangilinan said. (I too am a father. One cannot know the pain and hurt inflicted on the Cullamat family because of her passing.)       

 ‘’Some humanity should prevail even in times of war. Gloating and mockery insult the memory of the dead and the pain of the grieving. Respeto para sa namatay at namatayan,’’ he said. (Give respect to the dead and her grieving family.) 

 ‘’I pray that Jevilyn’s family be accorded respect and compassion as they mourn the death of their young girl, a medic in the rebel unit,’’ he added.