Media indulge AFP red-tagging in the midst of the pandemic

Screengrab from News5Everywhere‘s YouTube account.

NOT EVEN a raging pandemic has stopped the military’s red-tagging. Already severely challenged by the difficulties of remote teaching, the universities are being further targeted by the Duterte quasi-military regime.

On January 18, the Philippine Collegian, theUniversity of the Philippines’ (UP) student publication, reported on its social media accounts that Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had unilaterally terminated a 31-year-old agreement between the UP and the DND. Mainstream media picked up the development online, getting Lorenzana’s confirmation two hours after the news broke.

Signed in 1989 by then UP President Jose Abueva and then Defense secretary Fidel Ramos, the agreement prohibits the entry of military and police forces in any UP campus without prior coordination with university officials. Lorenzana’s reason for termination was UP’s supposedly being a recruitment center for the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the New People’s Army (NPA), for which he presented no proof.

The cancellation of the accord was only the beginning of a series of allegations by the military against UP students, some UP alumni, and more than 30 public and private universities it has tagged as recruitment hubs for the CPP-NPA. The police topped this absurdity by claiming, as usual without any proof, that the university is manufacturing shabu in a laboratory and that Brgy. UP Campus is a hotspot for crime.

For almost two weeks, reporters followed the military’s lead, getting the sides of the accused presumably to be fair in the coverage. But given the very real danger posed by red-baiting against the lives of faculty, students and staff, media held back from presenting the absurdity of the AFP’s claims, starting with the simple fact that the pandemic has pushed schools to operate online.

CMFR monitored the coverage of four primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, GMA-7’s 24 Oras, TV5’s Frontline Pilipinas and CNN Philippines’ News Night), six Manila-based broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin, Daily Tribune, The Manila Times, Manila Standard), the counterpart websites of these channels and broadsheets, and selected independent news sites from January 19 to 29, 2021.

Missing in the coverage

One would think that the billions-worth of intelligence funds at the disposal of the AFP and PNP would have yielded believable, if not indisputable results. They have gotten away with the red-tagging spree for so long, and some of those wrongly identified as communist or terrorist have been killed.

This significant context, the background that provides the bigger picture than the exchange of statements about communists in UP, was lost to the media. Reports based on news conventions treated the termination of the UP-DND accord as an event disconnected from other developments. Journalists got reactions from the academe, the legal community and even lawmakers without letting go of the string of statements from the military about the universities’ role in the armed movement, no matter how questionable or downright ridiculous they were. Coverage was fixated on the cycle of accusations and denials, set up successfully by military sources.

The media did not include in their coverage the necessary background on the current state of the NPA and to raise questions about the need for an intensified anti-communist campaign at present. There are enough documents and sources to establish that the communist armed insurgency is dwindling, as military officials themselves claim.

Another distraction

The press gave the brouhaha enough attention, but did not raise questions about the basis of the military’s actions and to present these as a pointless distraction from more important priorities and the more immediate needs of a country undergoing a dire crisis. Why is the AFP checking schools for NPA recruitment now, when everyone is working and studying from home? Netizens have readily pointed out the disconnect, but journalists did not adopt the same critical lens in reporting the news.

Inquirer’s January 22 editorial correctly observed that Lorenzana’s unilateral termination “smacks of yet more diversion and repression,” as public sentiment has been pointing to the regime’s inept handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Responding as well to other issues of corruption and impunity, “Young Filipinos — UP students, particularly — have been among the fiercest, most vocal objectors,” the Inquirer said.

Lourd de Veyra in Frontline Pilipinas went further with a scathing commentary  highlighting the hypocrisy of the AFP: one, in avoiding Philippine waters that are being occupied by China; and two, in forgetting how its ranks have produced coup plotters who, much like armed revolutionaries, had tried to topple incumbent administrations. De Veyra reminded everyone that some of them are now occupying executive positions.

Instead of doing their part to alleviate the COVID-19 affliction, the security and armed forces have added to the burdens that citizens must bear, threatening the fundamental freedoms the government is sworn to protect. What is even more disappointing is that the media indulged the government, letting pass its follies and its failures.