New Internationalist

New Headlines In The Philippines?

Issue 100

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THE NEW INFORMATION ORDER [image, unknown] Dissidence in the Philippines media

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New headlines in the Philippines?
The thirst for alternative news is strong in the Philippines. Faced with a muzzled radio and press since President Marcos introduced martial law in 1972, numerous small groups have fought for freedom of information. Now martial law has been lifted. Paul Icamina looks at changes in the media since the clamps have come off.

Marcos: still pointing the finger at the alternative media. Photo: Camera Press/Jungkwan Chi
Marcos: still pointing the finger at the alternative media.
Photo: Camera Press/Jungkwan Chi

'I PITY the old prostitute. When the American gave his stroke she burped.' The lines come from a song sung when Americans used to rule this Philippine archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, but they are deeply rooted in the centuries old tradition of the komposo, or balladry. Now the times have changed, a different ruler has come to power, and new songs have appeared with the same cynical irreverence.

'Barrio (village) folk tell me that peasants in the hills are now singing other tunes with different lyrics. Invariably, they tell of barrio life, love tales and the exploits of the New People's Army' says an American folklore researcher.

Balladry is only one of many ways in which Filipinos have tried to narrate and record the changing times under Philippine martial law declared in September 1972.

In other parts of the country, those who have the resources use plain paper copiers, recopy clippings of banned newsletters and other foreign newspapers like the Washington Post which carry articles critical of martial law.

The thirst for 'the other side' of the news was strong in a country where news is either 'managed' or simply Government controlled.

Martial law was officially lifted six months ago, January 1981, but the opposition remain skeptical over the continuing one-man rule, arbitrary arrests in the name of 'national security', a still unannounced new security code and virtually no free elections in sight.

While noting that it was time for Government participation in news dissemination to end, President Ferdinand Marcos stressed that with or without martial law, the mass media are subject to other laws, particularly those on subversion and libel.

'What is "subversion" is decided by the State, and this is worrying. There is always the threat that the Government will pounce on you in the name of national security' says a former newspaper man and well known Filipino Professor of Journalism, Dean Armando Malay.

The abolition of the media's regulatory bodies has brought no celebrations. Mr. Roxas, a leader of the United Democratic Opposition, says it is impossible for the opposition to have its own newspaper. In the first place, he says, no one would dare put out an advertisement in it. And newspapers need advertising revenue to survive.

Others agree that nothing has changed. The Hallelujah Foundation, owner of the pre martial law Channel II television station which was closed down, has been wafting for two years to get a permit to rebroadcast. Three radio stations, owned by the Catholic Church and closed for alleged subversion in the late 1970s, have yet to resume broadcasting.

The publisher of the defunct Manila Times, once the most popular national daily here, refuses to resume publication, saying that he will need about half a million pesos to get the same equipment the Manila Times had. He is also afraid that, as has happened in the early days of martial law, his paper will be sequestered and later 'paid for' with overdue taxes he owed the Government.

One national daily, The Philippines Herald, is reportedly going back on the streets. But it will be a joint venture this time between the owner of one of the largest corporations in the country, Mr Andres Soriani, and a close friend of President Marcos, Mr Herminio Desini. Nothing very exciting for free press advocates.

The only newspaper which is a consistent critic of the martial law administration is the small English weekly called We. Self-styled as the 'national weekly forum of free expression', We has become both a popular source of anti-martial law news and an outlet for the non-communist opposition. For all of its vocal opposition, the publisher, Joe Burgos, is himself surprised that the Government allows the publication. 'Perhaps', he suggests, 'they want to make of it something like a show-case of Philippine democracy.' But beside the popular tabloid boasting circulations of over half a million, We's 20,000 distribution is a drop in the bucket.

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Except for the Philippines Daily Express which was never closed down and pro Marcos even before martial law, all present national dailies are new. The internecine and incestuous relationship between Marcos relatives, favourites and close business friends is particularly pronounced in the ownership of these papers. The Bulletin Today is owned by the publisher of the defunct Manila Bulletin, rich businessman Gen. Hans Menzi, a close friend of President Marcos. The Daily Express is owned by former ambassador to Japan Roberts S. Benedicto, also a close friend of President Marcos and chairman of the Philippine Sugar Commission. He is also reputed to own three of the country's five television stations. The Express has two daily sister publications, the Pilipino Express (in Pilipino) and the English-language Evening Express, an afternoon daily. The Times Journal is owned by Gov. Benjamin Romualdez, brother of Imelda Marcos, who also owns the People's Journal. The other afternoon paper, The Evening Post, is owned by Kerima Tuvera, wife of Presidential assistant Juan Tuvera.

The four leading national dailies (Bulletin, Times Journal, Express and Balita, in that order) had a total circulation of more than 600,000 in 1977-78, according to the Asian Press and Media Directory. While they have reported on cases of graft and corruption in high public places, official incompetence and have occasional critical editorial comments, they remain, on the whole, cautious.

The Government itself sees the press 'not as its adversaries but as its critical collaborators,' curiously a phrase also reserved for the potentially troublesome Catholic Church. Acting Information Minister Gregorio Cendana has said that the 'media has assumed a different stance after it realised that it had a bigger role than a mere adversary.' His remarks came a week after former Foreign Minister and ex-President of the University of the Philippines Salvador Lopez said last year that only one week of full press freedom would be enough to topple the martial law government.

One major focus of open urban and rural resistance to martial law is through the Church. Religious publications and, before they were closed, the radio stations have been openly critical and were widely heard.

Fr. James Reuter, a Jesuit priest and editor of The Communicator, recalls that they even planned five other names for their publication, like Facts and Truth. 'Imagine the Government calling for us to stop publishing "The Truth" or stop "The Facts" from coming out' he smiles.

Prior to 1977 there were 50 rural mimeographed newsletters, all with permits from the Philippine Council for Print Media. The 51st was the Ang Bandilyo, closed down after a series of military actions in Mindanao province. In Bukidnon province, the Church owned radio station DXBB was closed November 1976 and the weekly information bulletin Ang Bandilyo was closed the following January after its offices were raided. In Davao province over 90 Church workers including one priest were arrested. The local church-owned radio station was also closed and the social action offices raided.

Catholic bishops publish newspapers in the dialect of their diocese, often remaining just within legal bounds as they criticise and expose Government policies. The association of Major Religious Superiors (a group of priests and nuns) works openly on a wide range of social and political issues and has a Task Force on Detainees which regularly publishes mimeographed reports on torture and other human rights violations by the Government. Its latest printed report, released January, admitted that reported cases of torture decreased early in 1978 through 1980 due to international pressure on the Marcos Government.

'But,' the report said, 'the methods and styles simply changed.' Reports of killings by the military and disappearances increased, mostly in the countryside. It observed a new phenomenon called 'salvaging' or the liquidation of suspected criminals and subversives.

Despite strict Government restrictions on the purchase of mimeograph machines and even paper, a wide range of semi-legal or underground newspapers abound. The official National Democratic Front publication, Liberation, appears monthly and is distributed nationwide. Ang Bayan (The Country), the official publication of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Philippines, contains party statements, news and feature articles in its Pilipino and English bi-weekly editions.

[image, unknown] While opposition publications might be effective in so-called 'liberated areas' or among members of leftist organisations, other observers doubt it if they have any impact at all on the national consciousness. For one, circulation is very limited, most often dictated by financial constraints, lack of equipment and the risks which possession by the reader entails. Often the mimeographed broadsheets are printed badly. Underground printers, lacking mimeographing machines, reportedly type on stencil papers, after which ink is squeezed through by a squeegee, much like silk screen printing. Often underground printing houses move from one place to another, just a little bit ahead of the law.

From 1972 to 1979 some 117 'subversive' newspapers, leftist and non-leftist, legal and underground, were circulated. Some of these newsletters joined together and while some church-run newsletters still exist without permit there are only about 30 or so leftist underground newspapers in circulation today.

Still leftist underground newspapers are important sources of news for those who bother to read it either by accident or design. In rural areas,where they are mostly concentrated and where establishment newspapers seldom reach, they are also important sources of 'alternative' news. The hundred and one small. publications, ballads, posters and slide shows reflect the struggle for an alternative voice to that of President Marcos. Such communicators have faced detention, assassination, martial law and expulsion. Ultimately, however, although the steam valves have been screwed down hard on Pilipino society, the boiler is leaky. And when the pressure is released there will be such an explosion of activity no amount of newsprint or film could capture it.


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