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Apology not enough

/ 05:09 AM January 28, 2021

The Duterte administration’s signature attack-then-retract playbook was on full display again last Sunday, when the Armed Forces of the Philippines was forced to apologize for the ill-advised posting on social media of a list of 28 University of the Philippines alumni, erroneously tagged as members of the outlawed New People’s Army (NPA), who had either supposedly died or been captured.

The list was uploaded by the AFP Information Exchange page, which is managed by the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Civil-Military Operations. Roundly jeered for what turned out to be baseless claims easily disproven by a simple web search, the AFP took down the post and issued a grudging mea culpa—grudging, because the most it owned up to was describing its dangerous accusations as “inconsistencies.”

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“We sincerely apologize for those who were inadvertently affected by inconsistencies regarding the List of Students who joined the NPA (Died or Captured),” it said.

Many of those on the botched list—among them award-winning playwright Liza Magtoto, journalists Roel Landingin and Roberto Coloma, Free Legal Assistance Group lawyer Rafael Aquino, and former PhilHealth chief Alexander Padilla—are very much alive and known in their respective fields.

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The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said it would have normally dismissed this “canard” as “laughably stupid,” but given the perilous times when red-tagging can lead to death, casually putting out lists without even the most basic fact-checking by the AFP “is no laughing matter at all.”

The military said it was conducting an internal investigation and reviewing processes and procedures, and that personnel responsible for publishing the erroneous list “will be held to account.” That assurance won’t wash, however, as the vicious cycle of publishing all sorts of unverified “lists” followed by halfhearted apologies has gone on uninterrupted and unpunished since 2016. Under this administration, bogus lists have proliferated, from the “narcolist” President Duterte himself waved before the public and which proved to be riddled with errors, to the quickly discredited “Oust Duterte matrix” that then presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo unveiled in Malacañang, and now the list of so-called NPA rebels among UP students and universities.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana acknowledged that the AFP’s posting of the list was “an unpardonable gaffe,” but he himself opened the floodgates to heightened red-tagging when he unilaterally abrogated the Department of National Defense’s accord with the University of the Philippines on grounds that the country’s premier state university was a “breeding ground of enemies of the state.”

A number of red-tagged UP alumni have announced plans to come together and file cyberlibel and contempt cases against the AFP and defense officials to make them accountable for issuing “obvious and deadly falsehoods.” “The members of the group are consulting and definitely we want [to hold] people accountable for the reckless publication and malicious implication,” said Padilla, who led the government panel in the peace talks with the National Democratic Front and the NPA during the Aquino III administration.

That suit should materialize, and perhaps other bodies like the Senate should conduct investigations as well, if only to formally direct the military to explain how it comes up with such information, who handles and vets the intelligence, and what redress mechanisms are in place when egregious lapses occur and the lives and reputations of ordinary citizens are placed in peril. Military officials merely being told to be more “prudent” in releasing names of those allegedly involved in the communist movement is essentially indulging them in their campaign of slander and threats. More to the point, how does the AFP end up peddling mortifying intelligence “gaffes” given the billions of intelligence funds at its disposal?

But the embarrassment over the administration’s latest credibility-shredding list was apparently still not enough to deter Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade Jr., the vociferous poster boy of the government’s anti-insurgency campaign, from spewing more falsehoods. Parlade has upped the ante by accusing a growing number of universities—now at 38—of being “recruitment centers” of the CPP-NPA. “This charge, though, is really ‘getting old’—a rehash of the public accusation the general made in 2018—irresponsibly cast without proof,” said the rare joint statement issued by officials of the Ateneo de Manila University, De La Salle University, Far Eastern University, and the University of Santo Tomas.

Old charges, but still deadly to the safety and peace of mind of those the AFP has targeted with its unwarranted allegations. For state actions that are way more repugnant than mere “inconsistencies” or “gaffes,” an apology—badly written at that—is not enough reparation.

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TAGS: apology, gaffes, military intelligence, NPA, parlade, red-tagging, UP alumni, UP-DND accord
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