The Marcos Regime and the Making of a Subservient Philippine Press: Part II

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Harassment of Journalists

To the journalists of the period, collaboration came with an assured set of rewards. For one, they retained their employment and had the opportunity to flourish in their careers; more importantly, they were safe from the brute force tactics of an easily-angered powerful few who had the military at their beck and call. But despite the intimidations, those like Magsanoc, who kept their eyes peeled and pens sharp, continued to write. They wrote knowing that only the most tyrannous of governments persecute journalists for fulfilling their professional duties.

One other journalist who heeded the call was Demosthenes “Demy” Dingcong, a provincial correspondent of Bulletin Today in Lanao. He was shot on the head by an unidentified gunman in his house in Iligan on 5 December 1980. His killing took place after he published an exposé on the missing 1.35 million-peso fund intended for the food and allowances of students of Mindanao State University, where then-Lanao del Sur Governor Ali Dimaporo sat as Board Chairman. Dimaporo was a loyal ally of Marcos who had enjoyed many years of political dominance in the province. The exposé was not his first brush with Dingcong. The journalist had already written about anomalies in local government spending, on military abuses, and the situation of the province’s political prisoners. Neither was the incident on the 5th of December Dingcong’s first brush with death.  He had already received threats from local officials; on one occasion, he narrowly escaped death when two armed men tried to shoot him in a market. Dingcong, however, continued to scrutinize the local government’s activities, and was ultimately killed for it.[1]

At least two more journalists met the same fate in southern Philippines. Atty. Florante “Boy” de Castro, who had reported suspicious local government activities in South Cotabato, and Geoffrey Siao, a radio commentator and writer of the Phil. Post in Iligan City, were murdered less than a week apart in March 1984.[2]

On 3 March 1983, a group of at least nine women writers – including Arlene Babst, Odette Alcantara, Ma. Ceres Doyo, Jo-ann Maglipon, Domini Torrevillas-Suarez, Lorna Kalaw-Tirol, Cielo Buenaventura, Sylvia Mayuga, and Sheila Coronel – petitioned the Supreme Court to prohibit the National Intelligence Board (NIB) from further subjecting their group to acts of harassment and intimidation in connection with a series of articles that they had written on military atrocities in the countrysides. These articles, published in the Panorama on different dates from 1981 to 1982, exposed the massacres, cases of torture, village burnings, and the gruesome desecration of the bodies of dead civilians committed by the military in Bataan, Northern Samar, and Davao del Norte. The NIB reacted by issuing subpoenas, conducting interrogations, and threatening to file libel suits against the individual members of the group. Another reporter, Isidro Chammag, was charged with libel in 1983 for writing about the abuses of the military in Abra.[3]

 

Anyone can be a suspect

There is something fundamentally wrong about a government that insists on keeping the mouths of critical observers shut. Not only does it violate the basic rights to life, safety, and free speech of its journalists; it also subverts its citizens’ right to make informed opinions on the way they are governed. It is an insidious affliction, and its effects reach beyond a single generation – here lies the silent brutality in the Marcos government’s penchant for keeping things secret.

On 10 May 1983, a group of lawyers filed a petition for mandamus at the Supreme Court to demand that all laws enacted by the President since the start of martial law be made public.[4] The incident revealed a number of previously unknown laws that had already been signed by Marcos but not yet made public; the Philippine Signs, one of the period’s “mosquito press” publications, tallied  nine general orders, 33 letters of implementation, 72 administrative orders, 124 presidential decrees, 291 letters of instruction, 405 executive orders, and 711 proclamations, all signed but not published as of October 1983. In its defence, the Government maintained that no law can come into effect unless it had been published in the Official Gazette.[5] Nevertheless, it came as a shock that the public was kept in the dark on such matters.

One of these “secret laws” in particular sounded the alarm bells for journalists. Presidential Decree No. 1834, “Increasing the Penalties for the Crime of Rebellion, Sedition, and Related Crimes, …” drew up a broad range of crimes punishable with reclusion perpetua to death. Under this law, anyone found to promote, maintain, head, execute commands, incite, or simply conspire towards committing sedition or rebellion could face the electric chair. “Inciting to sedition” included speeches, proclamations, writings, emblems, cartoons, banners, and the utterance of seditious words. It also stated that any person who uses printing, broadcast, television, or any other form of mass communication for “mounting sustained propaganda assaults against the Government” could receive the same penalty.[6] Practically anyone can be held liable under these provisions because anything construed as seditious in the slightest sense was punishable with the gravest penalties the state could impose.

P.D. 1834 was signed by Marcos on 16 January 1981 but only circulated two years after. Lawyers argued that since it had only been officially published on 29 September 1983, it could only take effect fifteen days later, or on the 14th of October. However, arrests on individuals charged with inciting rebellion or sedition were carried out as early as the 21st of September as demonstrations marked the eleventh anniversary of the martial law declaration and condemned the assassination of former senator and opposition leader Ninoy Aquino just seven months prior. An article in the Philippine Signs reported that a total of 107 individuals had been rounded up from 21 September to 21 October. Most of them were mere victims of circumstance – individuals who happened to be walking nearby and had nothing to do whatsoever with the demonstrations. It was said that the careless arrests were inspired by an arrest quota for members of the military who were keen on receiving rewards and promotions; the lawyers of the detained also believed it was done to further discourage the public from joining the increasing number of protests.[7]

P.D. 1834 induced the arrests of youths like Jean Fulgencio, a 22-year old student in Kalibo, Aklan, who was detained for carrying with her a tape recording of nationalist songs entitled Ibong Malaya. Fulgencio’s tape was discovered by members of the 313th Philippine Constabulary company during a raid conducted on the jeepney in which she and other passengers were riding. She was detained on 28 December 1983; by 4 May 1984, she was still in detention. Similarly, Jarammie Palma, a student of the University of Santo Tomas, was detained for up to five months for allegedly carrying a newsletter published by the League of Filipino Students – UST Chapter. He was charged with sedition for possessing subversive material.[8] If the State had decided to mete out the full penalty for his charge, Palma could have been punished with death. 

P.D. 1834 aroused fears anew at a time when martial law had supposedly been lifted. Photo of the May 23-29, 1983 issue of Ang Pahayagang Malaya from the Filippijnengroep Nederland Collection of the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission.

“Bahala na kung may crackdown

Both Fulgencio and Palma were accused of carrying allegedly subversive material; as such, both were branded as subversives. Their cases are certainly not isolated events. Many survivors of the martial law period would testify to having been detained and/or interrogated for having been found to possess similar items, whether they be newsletters, posters, pamphlets, books, etc., that the government considered subversive.[9] The consumption and production of such materials say something about the way the media were received. Whereas mainstream publications rolled out under surveillance, the smaller and sometimes covert or underground papers published stories that would not have passed through State censorship unless the publications were small enough to be dismissed as non-threats – just like mosquitos, as Marcos called them, which can be swatted in an instant.[10]

But the “mosquito press” did inflict some nasty bites on the regime, and as the years of martial law went by, more and more people lent their support to the publications that constituted it. This support ran parallel to the loss of faith in the press. As veteran journalist Armando J. Malay explained in WHO Magazine, the government-backed media ceased to transcend the label of propaganda and was pushing readers further towards the alternative press.  “Because the dailies lack credibility, when they report real achievements like the surplus of rice, some readers are indifferent, others do not believe. They think all this is propaganda,” he said. “In view of the extraordinary situation we’re in, we must learn to read between the lines. We also need editors with guts and courage, people who will dare and [say] bahala na kung may crackdown.”[11] Malay said these words in 1979. The decade that followed this gave birth to the examples of Magsanoc, Dingcong, de Castro, Siao, Chammag, and all the petitioners of Babst, et al. v. NIB – media heroes who braved the hazards of one of the least rewarding and most dangerous occupations under a dictatorship. 

The year 1983 marked a turning point in the state of the Philippine press. When the long-awaited return of Ninoy Aquino on August that year turned into a bloody assassination, the major local newspapers reported the incident like it was nothing out of the ordinary,  treating it with “an all-too-studied abnormal composure”. On the other hand, the foreign press buzzed with detailed accounts of the shocking developments at the Manila International Airport.[12] In the duration of the boycott, “xerox journalism” blossomed as a weeping, and infuriated people hungered for photocopies of foreign papers and ignored local ones like the plague. Newspaper burnings were even held in campuses.[13] The local coverage on the assassination made it clear as day that the press was but a mouthpiece of the regime and a mockery of the people’s right to information on matters of national concern. A large newspaper boycott began on the 11th of September and culminated with a Press Freedom March on the 16th. The throng of nearly a thousand that marched from the NPC office in Intramuros, Manila to the offices of Bulletin Today, Times Journal, and Daily Express – some of the so-called government controlled media – were eagerly joined by journalists as they cried, with a mixture of anger and humor, “Bulletin ibitin! Times Journal pang-imburnal! I-suppress ang Express!”[14]

Not too far away into the future, the portent of People Power was beginning to brew.

Protesters calling for a boycott of the controlled media, undated. Photo from the Filippijnengroep Nederland Collection of the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission.
A protest against media censorship, 1985. The participants are seen wearing yellow head bands and shirts in solidarity with the late Ninoy Aquino. Photo from the Filippijnengroep Nederland Collection of the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission.

[1] “DINGCONG, Demosthenes,” Bantayog ng mga Bayani Foundation, October 15, 2015, https://www.bantayog.org/dingcong-demosthenes/; “In the Know: Dimaporos of Lanao,” Inquirer.net, August 3, 2013, https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/457639/in-the-know-dimaporos-of-lanao

[2] “A Journalist’s Prayer,” NASSA News XXI, no.3, March 1984, 2, Folder 1, NASSA News, Filippijnengroep Nederland Collection, Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission, Quezon City, Philippines.

[3] Arlene Babst, et al. v. NIB, et al., G.R. No. L-62992, September 28, 1984, accessed through the LAWPHiL Project at https://lawphil.net/judjuris/juri1984/sep1984/gr_l62992_1984.html.

[4] “Death Penalty to Journalists!” Pahayagang Malaya II, no. 19 (May 23-29, 1983), 1, Human Rights + Militarization (old PPT) PCO-PDA Papers, Human Rights + Militarization, Filippijnengroep Nederland Collection, Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission, Quezon City, Philippines.

[5] Editorial, Philippine Signs 1, no. 3, (October 14-21, 1983), 4, accessed through the Bantayog Digital Archive at https://www.bantayog.org/signs-vol-1-no-3-oct-14-to-21-1983/.

[6] Presidential Decree No. 1834, s. 1981, Official Gazette of the Republic of the Philippines, retrieved online at https://www.officialgazette.gov.ph/1981/01/16/presidential-decree-no-1834-s-1981/.

[7] “Sedition suspects abused: Lawyers score PD 1834,” Philippine Signs 1, no. 3, 3, 9.

[8] “Stude Still in Jail, No Charges,” Philippine Signs 1, no. 24 (April 28 – May 4, 1984),12, accessed through the Bantayog Digital Archive at https://www.bantayog.org/signs-vol-1-no-24-apr-28-to-may-4-1984/.

[9] The crime of subversion, according to P.D. 1835, or the Anti-Subversion Law of 1981, constitutes “direct attacks on the life of the State.” The same law declared the Communist Party of the Philippines as subversive on the basis of its “objective to bring down by violence the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and to forcibly seize political power in order that they may replace the existing political, social, economic and legal order….” Any material that contributed to this end was, by definition, subversive.

[10] Ellen T. Tordesillas, “The potent bite of the mosquito press,” ABS-CBN News, updated March 5, 2015, https://news.abs-cbn.com/blogs/opinions/03/03/15/potent-bite-mosquito-press.

[11] Armando J. Malay, “Not the Newspapers,” WHO Magazine (August 18, 1979), 10-12, 23, as cited in Report of the National Press Club, 43-44.

[12] Doyo, 2.

[13] Ibid, 10; “Signs of the Times,” Philippine Signs 1, no. 1 (September 29 – October 6, 1983), 5, accessed through the Bantayog Digital Archive at https://www.bantayog.org/signs-vol-1-no-1-sept-29-to-oct-6-1983/.

[14] Doyo, 10.

 

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