On Red-Tagging, Vandalism, and the Danger of Censorship

Red-tagging vandals target two bookstores in Metro Manila.

popular bookstore
PHOTO BY Facebook/Popular Bookstore ILLUSTRATION War Espejo

(SPOT.ph) There’s a reason why there are books for every part of our lives. Toddlers start off with alphabet books, kindergarteners learn why lying is bad from Pinocchio or why greed is evil from Midas, and older students practice critical thinking through reading comprehension drills. Most of the things we read contribute to who we are as a person—and, more importantly, who we are as Filipinos. So when bookstores and libraries come under attack, best believe that it is a big deal.


On March 22, Popular Bookstore—which is popular for rare and hard-to-find titles on history, economics, politics, philosophy, and social history—reported vandalism incidents at their Quezon City spot. Written in big red letters are the words "NPA Terorista," which seems to accuse the bookstore's owners and patrons to be members of the New People's Army. It also reinforces President Rodrigo Duterte's declaration of the New People’s Army (NPA) as terrorist organizations through a signed proclamation on December 5, 2017. 

"Our reaction was not fear. It was more of dismay and exasperation. Books are not bullets and bombs. Books are for education and enlightenment. It is a repository of history and culture. It is what differentiates humankind from animals," the management of the Popular Bookstore said in a post.


Solidaridad Bookshop reported a similar event on the same day. "Got word from people managing the bookshop that it has been defaced recently by red paint, one clearly saying 'NPA.' Something's up, and I am pissed," wrote fictionist and journalist Joel Pablo Salud in a post on March 22. Owned by the late National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose, Solidaridad Book Shop opened its doors in Ermita in 1964 and has since showcased a wide selection of works by Filipino writers such as Lualhati Bautista, Nick Joaquin, and Bienvenido Santos. 

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Statements Against Red-Tagging of Local Bookstores 

Various writing communities have condemned these incidents and called on local and police authorities for an immediate investigation to bring the perpetrators to justice. The Philippine Center of the International PEN (Poets and Playwrights, Essayists, Novelists) said in a statement: "It is sad that in the face of the alarming decrease of bookstores in a metropolitan that claims to be the educational and cultural center of the nation, two bookstores that have boldly stood, however forlorn, as fortresses of culture and enlightenment, have become targets of red-tagging and thuggery. In the most recent past, some state agents have raised the red bogey against persons or sectors expressing their mind, often to the displeasure of the powers that be; and that is why we ask local authorities and the police to urgently investigate the violence done to Solidaridad and Popular." 

With the emphasis on the phrase "democracy needs bookstores," board members of the Philippine PEN added in their statement: "With their liberal selection of titles, bookstores quietly but judiciously carry out debates and dialogues that keep democracy active and functioning. Ideological tagging and the violence of political partisanship achieve nothing but silence the bookstores, and even drive them out of business." 


The Philippine PEN was founded by Sionil in 1957. “During the Marcos dictatorship, PEN stood in defense of the freedom of expression and speech. This is an avowed purpose as embodied in the International PEN Charter,” their website said. 

The Unyon ng mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas, which was established in 1974 under the chairmanship of Adrian E. Cristobal and later National Artist for Literature Virgilio Almario, likewise released their statement of condemnation. "Bukod sa paglalako ng mga aklat, sentro ng gawing intelektuwal at malikhain ang dalawang bookstore. Anumang atake sa mga ito ay dapat ituring na atake sa lahat ng malaya at mapagpalayang gawaing intelektuwal at malikhain. 

Sa panahong ito ng laganap na ligalig dala ng paparating na pambansang halalan, muli kaming tumitindig para sa demokrasya at mga batayang karapatang pantao; sa kalayaan sa pamamahayag; at sa mga institusyong gaya ng aklatan, bookstore, at iba pang daluyan ng mapanuring ideya at impormasyon sa ngalan ng katotohanan at maalam na pagpapasya." 


Katipunan sa Kultura at Kasaysayan, which is described as "samahan ng mga alagad ng sining, mga manggagawang pangkultura, at mga taliba ng kasaysayan para nagkakaisang isúlong natin ang diwa ng Himagsikang 1896," also condemns the red-tagging of the two bookstores.  

"Ang gawaing ito ay idyotiko at tunay na may tatak ng karuwagan, nagtatanghal kapuwa sa kamangmangan at sa malisya ng mga bandalo. Nagdudulot ang mga bookstore na ito ng sari-sari at may-mataas na uring mga babasahín—na tiyakang hindi batid o hindi káyang pahalagahan ng mga naturang kriminal—at sa maraming dekada ay naging makabuluhan tungo sa pagpapatalim sa talinong kritikal ng mga nag-iisíp na Filipino. 

Ang pag-red-tag sa kanilá ay naghahangad lang na gipitin ang malayàng daloy ng mga idea sa pamamagitan ng pananákot sa mga tagapagtaguyod ng demokrasya at katarungan—lalo na sa mga manunulat, artist, at manggagawang pangkultura. 

Ang totoo, ipinakikíta lang ng gawaing ito ang tákot sa katotohanan ng mga kriminal—ang kaniláng tákot sa karunungang magpapalayà sa ating mga kababayan. Sinasalungat ng mga kriminal ang sining at kultura sa pamamagitan ng dahas at kahayupan. Nalilímot nilá, o hindi nilá kailanman nabatid, na ang mga manunulat at alagad ng sining ay nagwagi na sa mga nagdaang siglo ng tiraniya at panlulupig sapagkat ang katotohanan ay lagì nang mananaig sa anumang paghamak, pagsúnog, pagbura, at pagbaluktot. 


Higit sa lahat, ito ay hindi gawain ng iilang indibidwal, kundi bahagi ng isang nakaplanong kampanya ng paniniil na tinatangkilik at isinasagawa ng mga pasistang elemento sa loob ng Estado. Ang mga elementong ito—ang mga tunay na terorista—ang siyáng dapat mailantad at maisakdal lalo na dahil sa nalalapít na makasaysayang eleksiyon na magpapalayà sa atin mula sa paghaharing despotiko." 

The Dangers of Red-Tagging in the Philippines 

Red-tagging or red-baiting, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is "the act of attacking or persecuting as a Communist or as communistic." Academic publisher IGI Global also describes it as "a form of harassment or persecution of a person identified or suspected as a communist sympathizer." Lexico, which is powered by Oxford, defines it as to "harass or persecute (someone) on account of known or suspected communist sympathies." 

Contrary to claims that "red-tagging" is a term invented by the Communist Party of the Philippines, the New People’s Army, and the National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF), the word and its derivatives (e.g. "red tag," "red-tagged," and "red-baiting") have already been in use in foreign printed material even before Jose Mario Sison founded CPP in 1968. In a fact-check by Rappler, it was found the terms were used in American newspapers in 1955, a document printed in 1947 about U.S. Congress hearings on the alleged communist infiltration in the motion picture industry, in a 1938 editorial column of American daily Reading Eagle, and so many others. 

In a dissenting opinion by Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, he called the "phenomenon of red-baiting" the "[Philippines’] version of McCarthyism." He said that the practice is being used to "make it easy for military and paramilitary units to silence or cause untold human rights abuses on vocal dissenters" by "stereotyping or caricaturing individuals." He added: "This is accomplished by providing witnesses who, under coercive and intimidating conditions, identify the leaders of organizations critical of the administration as masterminds of ordinary criminal acts. Not only does this make these leaders' lives and liberties vulnerable, [but] a chilling effect on dissent is also generated among similar-minded individuals." 


According to a 2012 study by the International Peace Observers Network Philippines, red-tagging "can lead to warrantless arrests, torture, enforced disappearances, or extrajudicial killings." 

Carlos Conde, a senior Philippines researcher at Human Rights Watch, also confirmed: "Red-tagging is a pernicious practice that targets people who often end up being harassed or even killed. Red-tagging is rapidly shrinking the space for peaceful activism in the Philippines." 

Human Rights Watch added that "red-tagging has become deadlier since Duterte became president in 2016." The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights also used the term nine times in its July 2020 comprehensive report on extrajudicial killings in the Philippines under Duterte. 

Just in 2020, coordinator of Bayan Muna and activitist Jory Porquia was gunned down by unidentified men; former chairperson of Anakpawis and peace consultant Randall Echanis was killed inside his home in Quezon City; and Karapatan legal worker Zara Alvarez was shot dead in Bacolod City.


In April 2021, the Quezon City Police District and the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) shared a post from the anti-communist group Peace Philippines, which compiled photos of various community pantries. The post implied that these pantries, which emerged as volunteer-driven food assistance at the height of hunger and unemployment during the pandemic, are linked to the CPP-NPA-NDF organization. Fearing their safety, volunteers of the Maginhawa community pantry temporarily stopped their operations that day. 

On February 24 of this year, Chad Booc and Jojarain Alce Nguho III—both volunteer teachers of the indigenous people (Lumad) in Mindanao—were among those slain by the military during what they called an "encounter" between Army soldiers and a group of New People's Army rebels in Barangay Andap, New Bataan, Davao de Oro. Autopsy reports showed that Booc sustained multiple gunshot wounds, to which forensic pathologist Dr. Raquel Fortun said that "there was an intent to kill." Booc, who began volunteering to be a teacher for Lumad alternative schools in 2016, is among the signatories of the 24th petition against the Duterte administration’s anti-terror law. In 2020, he was named by Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade Jr. of NTF-ELCAC in a Facebook post as a "terrorist recruiter." He was arrested in 2021 during a police raid with claims that he had been training minors to be "child warriors." 

Red-Tagging of Bookstores, Books, and Libraries 

With the red-tagging shifting to local bookstores in the past week, the incident also calls to mind the purging of allegedly subversive literature from the libraries of state universities last year.


On October 21, 2021, Commission on Higher Education-Cordillera director Demetrio Anduyan Jr. issued a regional memorandum calling on higher education institutions to take part in the "region-wide removal of subversive materials both in libraries and online platforms." This came after the Kalinga State University in Tabuk City, the Isabela State University, and Aklan State University removed books and reference materials from the National Democratic Front of the Philippines. The Isabela State University, in particular, removed at least 23 handbooks, books, and documents authored by CPP founding chair Jose Maria Sison. 

Isabela State University president Ricmar Aquino also directed the institution's 10 other campuses in Isabela to remove NDFP materials from their libraries. "Our students should not be exposed to anything that will destroy their future," he said. 

Other state university officials were not so keen on this decision of their colleagues from higher education institutions. University of the Philippines Visayas chancellor Clement Camposano said on September 28, 2021 that "not a single Marxist book, or any similar or so-called subversive material, will be removed from UPV’s library collection." He explained that the purge of books is a violation of academic freedom and a form of censorship. 

Elvira Lapuz, a librarian at the University of the Philippines Diliman, told INQUIRER.net that the removal of these materials disregards critical thinking and literacy. "It shows how little faith we have in our youth. It clearly says that we do not trust them at all to be conscious, aware, and critical of the materials they have or have been given access to," she said. 


While these situations aren't exactly as visual as the Nazi book burnings in Germany and Austria in the 1930s, targeting books and libraries has been done by people in a position to maintain their power. Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang in 213 BC, for example, ordered the burning of books of poetry, philosophy, and history. According to historian Lois Mai Chan in a 1966 journal article, "His basic objective was not so much to wipe out these schools of thought completely as to place them under governmental control." 

When Chinese communist revolutionary Mao Zedong took over China and started the Cultural Revolution in 1966, books that promoted capitalism and any materials that didn't conform to his ideologies were also destroyed. Amid the civil war in Sri Lanka in 1981, nearly 100,000 rare books of Tamil history and literature at the Jaffna Public Library were burned by Sinhalese Buddhists.  

John Milton in his 1644 manuscript Areopagitica couldn't have said it better during his protest against Parliament’s ordinance to further restrict the freedom of print, "And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye."

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