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The truth shall set us free: The role of Church-owned radio stations in the Philippines | CMFR

The truth shall set us free: The role of Church-owned radio stations in the Philippines

by Isabel L. Templo

Radio Veritas and Edsa

“This is Cardinal Sin speaking to the people of Metro Manila…. I am calling our people to support our two good friends at the camp. If any of you could be around at Camp Aguinaldo to show your solidarity and your support in this very crucial period when our two good friends have shown their idealism, I would be very happy…. Please come….”

For many Filipinos, this message from the late Jaime Cardinal Sin, the archbishop of Manila, spoken over Church-owned Radio Veritas on February 22, 1986, was what started the People Power Revolution. Those who heard this call responded by going to Edsa and forming a human barricade between Camp Crame and Camp Aguinaldo that swelled to hundreds of thousands. It was a show of force and will in a moment of truth for a nation that wanted freedom from the 20-year rule of then President Ferdinand E. Marcos.

Sin’s “two good friends” were Fidel V. Ramos and Juan Ponce Enrile—Vice-Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces and Minister of National Defense, respectively—who had held a press conference earlier that day to announce what many Filipinos had suspected all along: that Marcos had not won in the February 7 snap elections. The two officials declared they no longer recognized the Marcos government and called on other ministers and military officers to align with them.

Former Bandila news anchor Henry Omaga Diaz was a Radio Veritas reporter in the 1980s, and one of only a handful of local reporters at the press conference. His reporter’s instinct told him this would be big. “Pag dating pa lang namin (As soon as we got there), somehow, I got the feeling that this (was) the end for Marcos,” Diaz recalls. “(I) had this feeling na ito na iyon (this was it).”

The existence of Catholic radio in the Philippines is not surprising, given the population profile. Some 61.8 million out of 76.3 million Filipinos—about 81 per cent —are Roman Catholic, according to the 2000 Philippine Census. This was even higher during the 1986 Edsa Revolution; Catholics comprised 50.2 million (around 83 per cent) of 60.5 million Filipinos (National Statistics Office, 1990).

Catholic radio programming includes Bible readings, discussions about Church teachings and live coverage of mass. But Catholic radio also reports political developments. During the Edsa Revolution, Church-owned Radio Veritas—and later, the clandestine radio station “Radyo Bandido” (“Outlaw Radio”)— played a pivotal role as an effective and reliable source of news and information. According to We Forum: “Only Radio Veritas was carrying a blow-by-blow account of the unfolding siege.”

Even when Marcos’ forces destroyed the station’s P40-million transmitter, the broadcasts continued on Radyo Bandido. Not only reports, but appeals for food and provisions and urgent calls for people to block approaching tanks were aired on the radio. Ramos said it was “the first time in military history that private broadcast media were used to transmit or relay military orders or directives to military units in the field” (Santiago, 1995). Fr. James B. Reuter, SJ (1989), head of the Catholic Church’s National Office of Mass Media (NOMM), called the Edsa Revolution “the first in the history of the world to be ‘run’ by radio” (as cited by the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation [RMAF], 1989)—not state-owned or even commercial radio, but Catholic radio.” It was arguably Catholic radio’s finest hour.

And yet Radio Veritas was not a popular radio station prior to Edsa. Of the 28 AM stations in Metro Manila in 1983, which had an average listenership of 15 percent, the station’s audience share was only 0.2 percent. But with the station’s coverage of the assassination of former senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino on August 21, 1983 more people started to tune in. Radio Veritas’ audience share increased to nine percent in September that year, to make it the fifth most listened-to of all radio stations, including FM, in Metro Manila (Han, 1984).

Gaining confidence

Before the four days of Edsa, Radio Veritas had been steadily gaining the confidence of the people by reporting what state-controlled media could not. After all, veritas means truth, and that is what Radio Veritas was committed to broadcast.

In 1983, when rumors of Aquino’s return to the Philippines started circulating, Radio Veritas called him for a live long-distance interview. Upon his arrival on August 21, Radio Veritas reporters were stationed at the Manila International Airport. Minutes after Aquino was shot, they were calling in the news from pay phones. Government-run media did not report the assassination until hours later (RMAF, 1986). Radio Veritas was also the only station that covered live Aquino’s funeral procession, which was attended by millions (Maslog, 1998).

The period following Aquino’s assassination was marked by demonstrations and civil disobedience. A presidential election was scheduled for 1987, the end of Marcos’ term, but in late 1985, pressure from both the opposition and the US compelled him to announce a “snap election.” In the run-up to the February 7 snap elections, Radio Veritas covered the campaign of presidential candidate Corazon “Cory” Aquino, widow of the slain opposition leader, and her running mate, the late Salvador “Doy” Laurel, which government media all but ignored. Later, the Church-owned station reported the Commission on Elections (Comelec) tally of the results, but more importantly, that of the National Citizens Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), which showed the Aquino-Laurel tandem leading. And it was there when 30 Comelec computer encoders walked out in protest over the rigging of the election returns.

Jumping through hoops

Sin’s appeal for people to go to Edsa to support and protect Enrile and Ramos, though well remembered, was not the first. Butz Aquino went on air before the Cardinal did, calling on people to converge at Isetann department store on Aurora Boulevard. From there, they were to march to Edsa to protect Enrile and Ramos.

But as the Archbishop of Manila, Sin was perceived as one of the country’s highest moral authorities. His call was an appeal to the people’s conscience. Although affiliated with the Marcoses at first—he even officiated at their twentieth wedding anniversary mass in 1974—Sin grew cold towards them following the government’s excesses and its inability to alleviate poverty.

Church-state relations grew worse under martial law. Even as the Church was intent on carrying out its mission of social justice, as decreed by the Vatican II Council, Marcos had his own agenda. Upon declaring martial law on September 21, 1972, he issued Letter of Instruction No. 1, claiming a “national emergency” and ordering the “takeover and control” of all media. Journalists and publishers were hauled off to jail. Close to a hundred news publications—including major dailies and community newspapers—one news service, seven television stations, and 292 radio stations were closed down (Mijares, 1976).

This included the Philippine Federation of Catholic Broadcasters (PFCB). All its member stations—17 at the time—were shut down. The difficult task of negotiating with the military’s Office for Civilian Relations to let the stations go back on air landed squarely on Fr. James B. Reuter, SJ, head of the Catholic Church’s National Office of Mass Media (NOMM), and then head of the PFCB. He recalled that they had to “promise not to say anything against Marcos or his regime or the military” (RMAF, 1989). It was like “jumping through hoops,” he said later (Laban: The Meaning of the EDSA People Power Revolution, 2007).

Eventually, Catholic radio stations were allowed to broadcast again. But shortly after martial law was imposed, two American priests were deported for their activities in a Church-owned radio station in Negros. Another priest in charge of a radio station was arrested the same year.

In November 1976, the military shut down two Catholic radio stations—DXCD in Tagum, Davao del Norte, and DXBB in Malaybalay, Bukidnon—on charges of rebellion and inciting to sedition. The charges against the two stations, the military later admitted, were baseless (Youngblood, 1993).

Other Catholic media were muzzled as well. After the raid on the radio stations in 1976, the military closed down Signs of the Times, a circular of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines (AMRSP). Reuter was charged with subversion and put on trial for a newsletter called the Communicator, with the military monitoring his home closely for two years (RMAF, 1989). Ang Bandilyo, a publication of the Prelature of Malaybalay, was closed down in January 1977 for articles against the government and the military, which were sometimes read over DXBB (Youngblood, 1993).

These incidents were only part of the bigger picture of mounting tension between the Catholic Church and the Philippine government. The military was coming down hard on suspected subversives, including church workers in the countryside. From July 1973 to October 1984, there were at least 22 military raids on Church establishments, four of them on institutions of the Protestant Church (Youngblood, 1993). Seminaries, Catholic schools, and other facilities were ransacked or closed. Priests, nuns, and laypersons were detained.

The Enrile-Ramos breakaway on February 22, 1986 prompted Church leaders to act. Speaking over Radio Veritas, Ricardo Cardinal Vidal, then president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), called for a peaceful resolution to the situation. Sin, for his part, first telephoned the different congregations of contemplative nuns, instructing them to fast and pray (People Power: An Eyewitness History, 1986). Then, he called Radio Veritas and gave his own statement as the archbishop of Manila. He, along with other bishops and priests, officials, and other concerned citizens, would continue to air appeals on the radio for peace, prayers, and support as the situation unfolded.

With Sin’s call for support for Enrile and Ramos came a message that sailed through the airwaves loud and clear: the Catholic Church in the Philippines was dissatisfied with the government and was throwing its support behind the “rebels.” Heeding this call, the Church came to Edsa in full force — not for war, but for peace and solidarity. The Edsa Revolution was a veritable confrontation between faith and force — the Church and the military. In the end, it turned out to be a demonstration not just of people power, but also of Church power. As Fr. John Carroll, SJ (1995), wrote later, the historic event projected the Church as “a powerful social and cultural force, a religious community capable of having an impact on political outcomes.”

“Lady in White”

Among the nuns who responded to Sin’s call was Sr. Sarah Manapol, SPC. Tiny, frail-looking, and soft-spoken, it’s hard to believe she could have anything to do with an uprising.

After Marcos forces destroyed Radio Veritas’ transmitters on February 23, Reuter had to come up with a “Plan B” to continue broadcasting. Thousands were already on Edsa, and the NOMM volunteers were standing by. “We (had) to let people know what (was) going on,” says Manapol. She remembered that Col. Ruben Ciron—whom she knew from the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP) meetings that she attended on behalf of the Catholic bishops—was given charge of DZRJ during martial law. So they called him to arrange the use of the station.
Soon June Keithley was on the air, broadcasting from the DZRJ facilities in Sta. Mesa. “Radyo Bandido,” as Keithley called the new station, signed on with the tune Mambo Magsaysay—former President Ramon Magsaysay’s 1950s campaign ditty harping on democracy, which the opposition used as their signature song during the snap elections. The station’s frequency was adjusted to fall near Radio Veritas’ own frequency so that listeners could easily find it.

By this time, other radio stations were already covering the events at Edsa. But the people were still tuned in to Radyo Bandido. Keithley’s broadcasts included information gathered by Radio Veritas reporters who, despite their transmitter’s being out of commission, were still on the job.

For security purposes, she did not disclose the location of the new station. “Wall-to-wall nuns,” as Reuter later put it (Laban: The Meaning of the EDSA People Power Revolution, 2007), armed to the teeth with rosaries and prayers, guarded Keithley at the DZRJ station; for the military to have gotten to her on the twelfth floor, they would have had to slaughter all the nuns on the stairs.

There was only one problem. Radyo Bandido’s transmission was much weaker than Radio Veritas’ 50 kilowatts. The signal might not have even reached Southern Luzon. The people in the rest of the country who had been tuned in to Radio Veritas would have been kept in the dark at a most critical time.

Luckily, Manapol says, all the Catholic radio production studios—members of the PFCB—had single side band radios. From the NOMM office in Sta. Ana, Manapol signed on as “Lady in White.” “When I turned on the single side band, all the (Catholic) radio stations in the provinces were on,” she recalls. “Naku, when I (signed on), everybody was talking all at the same time. So I had to speak Visayan, I had to speak Ilonggo…. I talked to Bacolod, I talked to Mindanao.”
“It was a network all of a sudden,” Manapol says. Young volunteers at key locations of Metro Manila acted as “field reporters” and kept in contact with Manapol and Reuter at the NOMM office in Sta. Ana through hand-held radios. The information was fed to Keithley in Sta. Mesa by phone and to the stations in the provinces by single side band radio.

Through those long hours of uncertainty, it was radio—through the instant network of the single side band radio—that kept the provinces informed about what was going on in Manila.

Place in history

A survey by Casal, Centurion, and Gomez (1988) found that the public perceived Radio Veritas’ role in the Edsa Revolution as consistent with the station’s mission as a Church institution, promoting the gospel values of truth, justice, freedom, and unity. The station did more than merely document events; it participated in them. And it gave representatives from the Church, the opposition, the “rebel” forces, and other sectors—all of whom would have had no outlet otherwise—the opportunity to speak. It made its listeners aware of their rights as well as their responsibilities even as it advocated nonviolence and peace.

Radio Veritas’ role in the Edsa Revolution did not go unnoticed. Among its many commendations were a citation from then President Aquino, and the Catholic Mass Media Award for Public Service. And in “using truth to depose an oppressive and corrupt regime and restore Filipino faith in the electoral process,” the station received the 1986 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts. For helping the Philippines regain its freedom, the Church-owned radio station named for the truth had sealed its place in history.

Isabel L. Templo is a freelance journalist based in Quezon City who writes on women and development for Women’s Feature Service, and on business and social enterprise for Manila Bulletin‘s Business Agenda section. She has a master’s in journalism from the Ateneo de Manila University. This article was written in 2007 as part of her master’s project, excerpts of which have also been published in the 2010 edition of Asian Currents by the Konrad Adenauer Asian Center for Journalism at the Ateneo de Manila University.