Beleaguered journalists during the Marcos regime were in demand as speakers at public fora, church services, school convocations. People wanted to hear, for confirmation, from the horses’ mouth, so to speak, if they could not write freely, and what press censorship was all about. I’ve been rummaging through a trove of editorials and columns that I had written as Philippine Panorama editor in hopes of possibly putting out a volume. I read the pieces, and there sprung to life memories of the agony, very little ecstasy if at all, that writers went through during martial law. Oh, what a pain it was to be writing, and not writing, during those perilous years. To remind you, my contemporaries, and tell millennials of those terrible years, I am publishing excerpts from a message I delivered at the Philippine Independent Church in Quezon City in 1985, a breath away from the People Power revolution that drove the Marcoses to Hawaii.
“Whenever I accept an invitation to address a group of people on the state of the press in the country, I ask if there’s a lawyer in the audience who will defend me in case another libel suit is filed against me as a result of what I would say this morning. Six libel suits had been filed against me for articles I assigned the staff to write, and I, wrote myself, that the dictator and his lackeys did not like.
“ This time I think I will not ask for a human rights lawyer to defend me; but the assurance, from this convention of high officials of the Philippine Independent Church, that, because of my talk today, I shall have a place in heaven. For I have always looked with awe, and envy, if you please, at bishops and priests for having special access to the Almighty more than ordinary church have.
“I am with allies today in view of the fact that the first Supreme Bishop of the Philippine Independent Church was a fiery journalist who was driven into exile and incarceration in Spain, for his writings that demanded reforms in the government and in the Roman Catholic church in his country. That journalist was Isabelo “Belong”de los Reyes.
“Together with nationalist writers during the period preceding the Philippine Revolution, Don Belong wrote provocative articles against the friars and Spanish authorities without fear of losing his life and property. On one occasion, a newspaper that had been printed in Spain and which carried an article by Don Belong was not allowed to be circulated in the Philippines as Don Belong’s piece was considered divisive and inimical to the unification of the Filipino people. Even during the American Occupation, Don Belong was not lacking in venom as he criticized the excesses committed by people in high places.
“The Philippines became an independent Republic in 1946. But today, nearly 40 years later, the Philippine press is fighting for freedom from the controls imposed on it by a repressive administration.
“Since I became a respondent in six libel suits, one of which is asking for damages in the amount of P220 million, another, just P100 million, I have been asked many times to speak about press freedom, and the lack of it. This indicates, I think, a tendency among groups, indeed, also among churchmen, to glorify the “notorious.” I am told that I have been unfair for speaking in places where people come to worship and listen to advice on being good and godly, where one should not mount attacks against the government, the military, and the oppressive forces around us. But I am here, and grateful that I am the first woman asked to deliver a message in this church.
“But should the pulpit refrain from commenting on forces and issues that cast a pall of gloom on the nation’? Should not the church speak out against injustice, oppression and exploitation? Should not the work of the church be directed at the healing of man’s spiritual and physical wounds? Should not the church, and the media, work hand in hand to liberate our society from the grip of a repressive regime?
“And so it is that I speak today on the anguish that the media – written and broadcasting – underwent, with the hope that you, in this diocese, will have an idea of our efforts – which are similar to the efforts of some of the members of your congregation – to free the media in order that we achieve justice, truth and democracy.
“How can Philippine journalists be true to their calling under the present dispensation? How tell the public what it should know? How can they present both sides of an issue in order for the readers to weigh things so they can form their own opinion? Why can not writers conduct a probe on the motivations of proclamations issued, on the false claims of government being the great economic tiger of Asia? About the false claim of the highly falluting New Society as being only for the good, the true, and the beautiful? Why cannot reporters write about outspoken activists being shot by the military in broad daylight and in the recesses of mountain hideouts? Why cannot they write about edifices crumbling and burying workers alive?
“The Press, if it is truly free in a democratic society, expresses consent and dissent; it is a critic, an interpreter of events it believes to be morally wrong, it seeks to put things right. It tells the governed what the governors are doing, it tells the governor how the governed feel about their actuations. The Press reflects the pulse of society. Unfortunately, in our time, criticisms are met with bitter reprimands, in fact, send critics to prison, or are salvaged.
“I am not saying that the Press has license to kill, that it exercises unlimited freedom of speech and expression. Serious writers know that they must be responsible, must check facts for what they write; they operate within bounds, they must be fair and just, without malice even as they write without fear.
“Publishers are also in a precarious situation, fearing as they do, of their publication being shut down for allowing writers to make digs at the administration. It is this anxiety of losing their source of revenue and prestige that make media managers kowtow to the powers-that-be. This explains why articles that are already being run in the newspapers’ presses are pulled out and replaced with innocuous articles.
“The thing about the media situation in the Philippines is that the government sets no rules on what not to write, so writing is a guessing game; one depends on one’s gut feeling about whether a piece is going to get one into trouble.
“For as long as there are men and women and beasts who are hungry for power and want to hold on to power forever, there will always be attempts to enslave society and muzzle the mouth, ears, and minds of men and women of the Fourth Estate.
“Only when this society becomes a truly democratic society can we have writers who are free to write and speak the truth. For, to paraphrase Don Belong, “What are journalists for but to run after the truth?”
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