September 21: Then and Now
MANY WHO lived through the years of Martial Law, proclaimed by then Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos on September 21, 1972, are gripped by a sense of déjà vu.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to more restrictions, imposed curfews, check-points and limits on travel and movement. In these and other ways, September 21, 2020 feels as though Filipinos have gone back in time to that dark period of fear and uncertainty.
Existential threats are real on many levels. In the early eighties, the rise of oil prices disrupted the national economy just as the pandemic has cost many their jobs, stalled production and slowed down the economy. But there are also deaths from unexplained and un-investigated killings, adding to the heavy toll of the deadly virus on human life. Human rights and freedoms are in peril with the passage of anti-terror laws, the passage of which has emboldened public officials to curtail at every opportunity free speech on social and old media. The government’s propaganda machine churns out hate speech and fake news, deepening the confusion and polarization of Philippine society.
Climate of Fear
With the military and police working as one, the ubiquitous presence of men in uniform demonstrated how the civilian and military bureaucracies had joined together in preserving and defending , not the sovereignty of the people, but the security of those in power.
The mass arrest of prominent citizens, politicians, businessmen, publishers, and leftists was justified by government as a step in halting their alleged collaboration with the destabilizes of government. Curfew was in force and travel restricted.
Marcos orchestrated a series of bombings in Metro Manila, including the 1971 Plaza Miranda bombing, and staged the ambush of his Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile to justify his declaration of Martial Law. Government propaganda played up the supposed capacity of both the communists and the Muslim rebels to destabilize the government, justifying a policy of arbitrary arrests and detention, enforced disappearances and the relentless violation of human rights.
A few months after his election, the bombing of a night market in Duterte’s hometown of Davao City on September 2, 2016 triggered his declaration of a “state of national emergency on account of lawless violence in Mindanao.”
The whole of Mindanao was placed under Martial Law on May 23, 2017 following the attack of the ISIS-linked Maute Group on Marawi City, Lanao del Sur. The proclamation was extended by Congress three times, citing as basis the continuing threat of armed terror groups and the Communist-led New People’s Army (NPA). It lasted two and a half years after its last extension expired on December 31, 2019.
The government’s “war on drugs” which began even before Duterte officially took office as president, initiated a reign of terror as the Tokhang campaign operated with relentless violence among the poorest communities. With the deaths of thousands of suspects left without investigation and explanation, fear for one’s life kept the population submissive and afraid.
Duterte’s allies enacted the draconian Anti-terror bill on July 3 this year. The law expands the meaning of terrorism to include “engaging in acts intended to endanger a person’s life,” to “damage public property” or “interfere with critical infrastructure.” It also allows warrantless arrests and the detention of suspected terrorists for weeks without charges. The Act passed in the context of government officials’ and units’ constantly red tagging individuals and organizations, including journalists, media outfits and activists, as communist operatives.
President Duterte is the first national leader to declare that those who do not follow his orders or to cross whatever line he has drawn will be killed. His rhetoric of violence is replete with the word “kill.” Killing has become an M.O. for law enforcement agents to achieve their ends, with little regard for due process and the presumption of innocence. The effect has been to instill fear for one’s life and that of one’s family.
Complete Control of Government
Marcos also decimated the opposition forces. Political figures, including then Senators Benigno Aquino Jr. and Jose W. Diokno, were imprisoned When some were released, Aquino was transferred to solitary confinement in Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija. These actions drove politicians, critical journalists and activists to exile or to abandon public engagement.
Marcos ruled as dictators do, abolishing Congress and exercising decree-making powers. He controlled the judiciary by asking all judges and justices to submit their resignations. These served as a reminder to these officials of a separate and independent branch of government that for them to hold court, they would have to decide on cases according to executive fiat.
There were independent-minded justices of the Supreme Court, but they were outnumbered by those loyal to Marcos.
At some point, the formation of the National Assembly or Batasang Pambansa provided Marcos with a rubber stamp legislative body that assured approval of the laws he wanted.
Duterte’s critics in the government have been detained, ousted from office or threatened with detention. With little evidence, an elected national official, Senator Leila de Lima, has been detained for her alleged involvement in the illegal drug trade in the New Bilibid Prison. Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno was removed from office through an unprecedented application of a quo warranto petition filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida. The amnesty granted by former President Benigno Aquino III to Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, a former Navy officer and mutineer, was declared “void ab initio” due to his alleged non-compliance with the minimum requirements in amnesty proceedings.
Duterte appointed Teresita de Castro Chief Justice of the Supreme Court after she had testified against the validity of the appointment of Sereno. His other justice appointees consistently voted in favor of such issues as the acquittal of Duterte’s supporter, former president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s in her plunder case, the declaration of martial law in Mindanao, and the burial of Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani.
Duterte’s rules the legislature and the judiciary. He has secured a supermajority in the House of Representatives, with more than 200 lawmakers signifying support for him when he assumed the presidency in 2016. Legislators from parties including the opposition Liberal Party have transferred to PDP-Laban, Duterte’s political party.
Propaganda and manipulation of media
Marcos closed down the media in 1972 through Letter of Instruction (LOI) 1 ordering the closure of privately-owned media establishments that operated “for propaganda purposes against the government” and tended to “undermine the faith and confidence of the people in our Government and aggravate the present national emergency.” Media and opposition personalities who were considered a threat to Marcos were arrested, interrogated and detained in military camps.
He imposed systems of censorship for all media; only a few news organizations gained permits to operate. He eventually allowed only those media companies owned by his family, friends and cronies to operate so as to insure favorable reports on the government, primarily on himself and his wife. The Department of Public Information and the National Media Production Center were assured huge budgets for the publication and production of news manufactured for this sole purpose.
Meanwhile, the crony press made sure that little was reported about the war in Mindanao, except on the triumphs of the AFP or the rebels who surrendered. No reports about the impact of war, the displacement of communities in the provinces and thousands who were dying on either side were included in the news.
But some people circulated mimeographed or photocopied copies of news from the underground and from abroad to break out of the country’s press ghetto. Jose Burgos launched We Forum in 1977 and Malaya in 1981 which dared to challenge the narrative manufactured by the dictatorship for the press. But funding limits kept publications such as these small and marginalized. Burgos nevertheless eventually faced charges in court for what he published.
Marcos thus achieved control of the public mind. With no news to challenge the government’s version of the state of the nation, Filipinos felt there was no reason to check the manipulation of news, allowing the dictatorship to secure its power over public affairs and people’s lives.
The Duterte campaign made use of paid troll armies to spread negative propaganda against the candidates then endorsed by Aquino, the outgoing president. Aquino was falsely painted as not having provided benefits for the poor, a claim later disproved by data of the improved statistics on national poverty.
His attack dogs brand those critical of the drug war as “dilawan” (yellow), or doing so only out of loyalty to the Aquino family. Journalists in the mainstream press have been painted as paid hacks, “bayaran” or “presstitutes.” Troll armies continue to threaten independent journalists and their families with death and other acts of violence. Other attacks and threats have continued against critical members of the media.
Duterte himself publicly accused the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Rappler and ABS-CBN with various alleged offenses to justify the actions he would take against their owners. The three companies had sustained critical coverage of the war on drugs, keeping track of the record of deaths in connection with that government campaign.
In May this year, Congress decided not to act on the application for franchise renewal of ABS-CBN, the biggest broadcast station not only in the country but in the region, closing down some 21 affiliate stations in the provinces and depriving thousands of livelihood with the loss of over 4,000 jobs nationwide. The government and its supporters also continue to press dubious legal charges against Rappler and its CEO Maria Ressa.
Even without censorship, political pressure for coverage favorable to the government has tamed the press which has for so long challenged the powers that be with investigative reports and its aggressive and adversarial inquiry. Today, much of the reporting merely records what the government has to say, failing to challenge the claims and the spins of spokespersons and other government communicators.
The Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) serves as the propaganda machine of the administration. Its budget sustains the unified narratives on all kinds of platforms to make the government look good. By all kinds of means, it is able to manipulate and control the public sphere.
The silence of the press on many important and urgent issues, including China’s take-over of the West Philippine Sea, has served to consolidate the false claims of the administration.
Sadly, many people believe that the government cannot be blamed for its failure to stem the transmission of COVID-19 and that there is little that can be done apart from waiting for a vaccine.
Even without Proclamation No. 1081, it seems like Martial Law is back— and with a vengeance.