Press freedom champion: Journalists pay tribute to Former President Ramos

FIDEL V. RAMOS (FVR), the 12th President of the Philippines, died on July 31. He was 94.

FVR was known for many things. He was a statesman during whose  presidency, the country was dubbed a rising “tiger economy.” He was a responsible military general who played a key role in the 1986 EDSA Revolution that toppled the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos Sr. He was also peace advocate; he initiated peace talks with all groups dubbed “enemies of the state” during his time. 

But for several journalists, he was also a champion of press freedom, a leader who understood the importance of a free press and respected its adversarial role. 

Following his passing, several journalists remembered FVR’s relationship with the press. 

Most accessible to the press

In an obituary   for News5 on July 31, Manny Mogato described FVR as “the most accessible to the press” among the Presidents from the time of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. to the present. 

“He always had a Wednesday press conference in Malacañang and would often allow the press to field questions on him during out-of-town and out-of-the-country coverages. He also generously gave one-on-one interviews to both local and international news agencies.”

In the same piece, Mogato said that it was a “dramatic transformation” from his attitude towards the press when he was still at the defense department during the Cory Aquino administration. Mogato said he would then “walk out from his regular press conferences when reporters asked him tough and controversial questions,” and that he would get around simple questions by providing long incoherent answers. 

It was  when he became president that he learned how to communicate well with reporters – “cracking ‘corny jokes’ during news conferences and answering questions straight and simple.” He had learned how to work with the press.

Not onion-skinned

Rappler’s Inday Espina-Varona, who was then the editor of the Philippines Graphic, recalled in a series of Twitter posts on July 31 that the former President was open to criticism.

“He was not onion-skinned. And he didn’t let others do the dirty work,” Varonna tweeted. She recalled when the former president would send clippings of the Philippines Graphics stories, with hand-written marginal notes on some points he disagreed with. “He also sent copies of reference material to back up his arguments. He just wanted his claims acknowledged, never mind if we added other references that disputed these.”

Clipping newspapers

GMA7’s Jessica Soho also shared her FVR’s newspaper clippings anecdote.

Soho reminisced in a tribute published in GMA News website on August 1 on some of her most memorable coverages of FVR. These included the latter’s penchant for writing notes or “instructions” on newspaper clippings with his red sign pen.

Soho recollected that her team was allowed to cover FVR when he had been elected president but not yet living in Malacañang, “already hard at work were four or five members of his security team clipping newspaper articles.”This memory reflected FVR’s habit of actively reading and reacting to the news.

A president who understood

According to GMA7’s Howie Severino in an August 1 Facebook post, FVR was “a president who understood [the media]”

During Severino’s early days in the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), he recalled that FVR invited the entire staff to Malacanang for a “dialogue.” The PCIJ staff was “a bit anxious” when the former president “gathered some of his top advisers, mostly men in their 40s and 50s,” to meet them.

Severino said that there were “no angry words, no threats, no wining and dining (don’t even remember any refreshments), not even a complaint” from  FVR or his men in the meeting. Rather, he recalled, “it was simply a chance for us to ask questions in a private setting at a more leisurely pace than the usual press conference, and an opportunity for him and his men to size up our little band of idealists.”

Ultimately, Severino said that the meeting did not result in any compromise of principles, but it “renewed mutual respect” for each of their roles as government and as media.

PCIJ continued to investigate the FVR government, and even published some reports that were critical of it.

FVR kept us busy

For younger journalists during that time, covering FVR became their training ground. In a post on August 1 by then Studio 23 reporter Daphne Osena Paez, she said, “ I learned how to write and report news while covering President Fidel Ramos in Malacanang for ABSCBN’s Studio 23. It was a great training ground. FVR kept us busy. Early morning cabinet meetings in different regions. Press conferences and ambush interviews.”

No dull moment

Reporter Jonathan Liwanes Mayuga, shared in an August 1 post a fun moment with FVR when he covered his pre-departure press conference at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. He said that there were “no dull moment(s). Witty questions are met with witty answers. He never fails to make us jot something down with our pen. We pause to laugh for a while then go serious again before throwing a question at him but it always ends with us laughing after his answer.”

Mayuga remembered that an airline staff came by and reminded FVR of his flight. And the then President jokingly responded, “tell the pilot to wait.” The press laughed.

Too many anecdotes, takeaways

Rappler’s Glenda Gloria said of FVR in a July 31 Facebook post, “There’s just too much to say, too many stories to tell, too many anecdotes from the field…Too many takeaways from this man who taught journalists and public servants one indelible thing: If you must do your job, do it well.”

Gloria said that FVR took not just the “blows” from the press and others but also the “long view.” This was how the former President took criticisms and used them to manage several situations faced by his administration.

Much-needed press freedom advocate

In a time when the media are painted as enemies of the state, the country needs leaders who accept the critical role of the press in a democracy. As politicians use trolls to spread propaganda and discredit the media, we need political figures who understand the importance of check and balances. As the media face several threats and attacks from public officials, we need more champions from the government who support media freedom.  

FVR, despite some of his shortcomings as  President, respected the media and supported its freedoms. He was open to learn from the press but  also responded to some of the news stories he disagreed with in a respectful way – no threats, no banning from coverage, no shutdown, no suppression. And for press freedom to be vibrant, we need more leaders of his kind.