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Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, holds a news conference during an official visit to the Philippines, in Mandaluyong, Manila, Philippines, February 2, 2024. © 2024 Eloisa Lopez/Reuters

Irene Khan, the United Nations expert on freedom of expression, concluded her 10-day visit to the Philippines on February 2 by urging President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to denounce the practice of “red-tagging” and disband the National Task Force on Local Communist Armed Conflict. The agency, which sits under the Office of the President, is notorious for harassing and intimidating activists, human rights defenders, and others for being sympathizers, recruiters, or members of the communist New People’s Army.

The call by Khan and previous UN special rapporteurs to close down the task force underscores the enormous, at times deadly, toll “red-tagging” has taken on civil society in the Philippines. Over the years, numerous “red-tagged” activists, journalists, and others have been physically attacked or killed, often by the armed forces or the national police.

“The dangers [of ‘red-tagging’] are evident,” Khan said. “The vilification has often been followed by threats, unlawful surveillance, attacks, or even unlawful killing. It intimidates and chills freedom of expression, and suppresses legitimate activism, journalism, debate and criticism which are part and parcel of freedom of expression.”

In its World Report 2024 on the Philippines, Human Rights Watch highlighted how red-tagging has affected the lives not just of activists but also trade unionists, students and other youth, environmentalists, and Indigenous peoples, among others. In her recommendations, Khan pointed out that red-tagging “is not only aimed at those who are actually associated with proscribed or listed organizations as some officials claim, it is also used to target legitimate activists and activities, sowing distrust between the State, communities and civil society.”

Marcos should urgently speak out against red-tagging and demonstrate that his rhetoric on respect for human rights is not just talk by disbanding the task force. Successive Philippine administrations have long used red-tagging as a pernicious weapon to suppress dissent and stifle criticism. Marcos should put an end to it. 

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