Martial law @ 50: Media repression then and now

SEPTEMBER 21 marks one of the darkest days of Philippines history, when President Ferdinand Marcos issued Proclamation 1081 revoking all civil liberties, shutting down the democratic system of government, and removing all checks and balances so he could establish himself as a dictator backed by the military and police. 

Many Filipinos who lived and survived the fourteen years of the late dictator’s Martial Law could not help but sense how the Presidency of Rodrigo Roa Duterte seemed to have gone back in time, taking them back to a period when the long arm of government could reach out to do as those in power desired, no longer constrained by the limits on state power set by the Constitution. 

Duterte openly declared his admiration for the late Marcos. His six years at the helm of government revived militarization, favoring the police forces to take the lead in most matters, not just on issues of law and order. 

He expressed openly and crudely his hostility against critics, especially journalists. He employed government-sponsored campaigns on social media to demonize mainstream media through government’s troll armies who popularized the terms “presstitutes” and “bayaran.”  It drove social media exchange with all kinds of disinformation and false narratives. 

In a period when legacy media had already lost their primacy as sources of information and news, Duterte sealed the decline of newspapers and the radical marginalization of truth, facts and accuracy in the public realm. 

In 2021, Duterte was named a ‘press freedom predator’ by Reporters Without Borders, an international media watchdog organization. The same year, his political allies who dominated Congress denied the franchise renewal of the largest TV network in the region, ABS-CBN, which had been in operation for more than fifty years. Numerous dubious charges—at least six of which are still active in court—were filed against Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler and Nobel Peace laureate for 2021. 

These threats, along with other forms of attacks and harassment of journalists and media companies have succeeded in taming, tempering, and even silencing what had always been recognized as among the most daringly free press communities in Asia and the world. This Duterte did without imposing Martial Law in the country. Taking advantage of a radically changed media landscape, Duterte’s troll armies dominated social media, with repeated and amplified propaganda. Accurate reports done singly have little effect in such a media market.

Fast forward to 2022, Duterte made his exit but it is clear that the electoral triumph of Marcos’ son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., merely continues the policies and programs that Duterte put in place during his six years in power. 

Marcos Jr. seems content to keep the status quo set by his predecessor. He has not opened up to the press, just like Duterte, who did not provide easy access to members of the press. Like Duterte, he has carefully avoided meeting with the press, and has been selective, choosing carefully who will interview him. 

Meanwhile, the propaganda machine used by Duterte has remained active. Marcos has employed vloggers who carry out manufactured messages about the first Marcos regime as a “a golden era,” sustaining false narratives about the Marcoses and their family through various digital platforms. 

Further, the Marcoses are putting into work the same mechanisms employed by Duterte to foster his image as “Tatay Digong” who was “the best President” to ever serve the country. But their purpose is solely to clear the family name that has been tainted with human rights abuses and widespread corruption during Martial Law.

CMFR lists five similarities of how media, the public medium of truth and government accountability, is being silenced and controlled then, during Martial Law, and now, fifty years later.

Propaganda through government agencies and social media

Marcos Sr.: Propaganda and media control were institutionalized through two government agencies, the Department of Public Information and the National Media Production Center (NMPC). 

The Department of Public Information’s first order strictly limited news media to issuing reports of “positive national value” to the administration. Marcos authorized the arrest of any person spreading, publishing, or circulating “rumors, false news and information and gossip” which could cause “discredit of or distrust” in government.

Messages carried only good news, following the official slogan of the “the good, the true and the beautiful.” Development programs were initiated but not scrutinized. There was no coverage of the growing revolutionary wars nationwide. News promoted beautiful images of what the government was doing, mostly the building of “edifices” which would turn out to be unproductive “white elephants.” 

Duterte: The Anti-Terrorism Law (ATL) and the establishment of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) make up the legal framework to curtail freedom of expression and press freedom. The NTF-ELCAC has used ATL to red-tag critical journalists, human rights workers, and lawyers, among others.

Social media made it easier for Duterte. Troll armies were directed and orchestrated by a central source. Ad industry professionals cobbled together campaigns to respond to critics. The approach succeeded in presenting the “war on drugs” as making the streets safer; that only those who were involved in drugs were killed in police operations because they fought back or “nanlaban.

Marcos Jr.: The new president merely continues the precedent set by Duterte, even announcing the continuation of the “war on drugs” campaign. Vloggers (video bloggers) are the new element in Marcos Jr.’s propaganda strategy, notably using the newer platform TikTok

ABS-CBN shutdown

On September 28, 1972, Marcos Sr. through Letter of Instruction (LOI) No. 1-A ordered to specifically sequester facilities of ABS-CBN, linking the media giant to conspiracy with the communist party and accusing it of operating “for propaganda purposes against the government.” Almost 10,000 people lost their jobs; it was the first time ABS-CBN was shut down.

In July 2020 under Duterte’s administration, an overwhelming majority of the House Committee on Legislative Franchises voted 70-11 against ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal application. In effect, an estimated 11,000 people were left jobless; the network’s free TV and radio stations nationwide were banned from using their assigned broadcast frequencies. 

Marcos Jr. did not get involved in the matter, but neither did he show concern over lawmakers’ ordering the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) to question the legality of a landmark deal between ABS-CBN and TV5, causing both parties to terminate the deal on September 1.

Attacks and threats against journalists

On the eve of the proclamation of martial law, leading mass-circulated dailies, journals, radio and television stations were shut down by soldiers in combat gear. Thousands of journalists, editors, radio and TV personnel were arrested and thrown into jail without due process.

CMFR and the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP) recorded 281 incidents of attacks and threats against journalists from June 30, 2016 to April 30, 2022 under Duterte. These included various levels of harassment, verbal and physical assault, red-tagging, intimidation, libel charges and the banning of journalists from coverage. These included attacks against Rappler, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, ABS-CBN, and the alternative press, among others.

A spike of online attacks against the media marked the first months in office of Marcos Jr. In July, Rappler, ABS-CBN, and, among others, were heavily spammed by thousands of dubious websites. In June, Marcos Jr. kept silent despite the NTC’s blocking of Pinoy Weekly’s and Bulatlat’s websites.

Crony press, media selectivity  

The Marcos Crony Press was made up of broadcast and print media organizations that were allowed to reopen and continue operations under the watch of Marcos’ allies. His friend and admirer Gen. Hans Menzi, a wealthy businessman who served as his aide-camp, owned Bulletin Today. His brother-in-law Benjamin “Kokoy” Romualdez owned and controlled The Times Journal. Roberto Benedicto owned Banahaw Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Radio Philippines Network (RPN), as well as a newspaper daily, Daily Express.

Before Duterte’s term was over, the closure of ABS-CBN made it possible to assign the network’s frequencies to two political allies: Manny Villar, owner of Advanced Media Broadcasting System Inc. (AMBS) and Apollo Quiboloy, who owns Swara Sug Media Corporation (SSMC) also known as Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI). Neither one has experience in the media industry; but they pose no threat as presidential cronies. 

During his presidential campaign, Marcos Jr. was criticized for his avoidant and dismissive treatment of the press. He snubbed debates, ignored challenging questions, and only indulged interviews with his allies such as Toni Gonzaga, a celebrity and his goddaughter. Interviews were often light and allowed Marcos Jr. to spread propaganda favoring and clearing his family name. He was also criticized for granting exclusive sit-down interviews with only three media outfits, in favor of the two outfits with ties to religious groups and figures that endorsed him.

Myth-making movies

The 1965 biographical film “Iginuhit ng Tadhana” was regarded as instrumental in Marcos Sr.’s installation in Malacañang, presenting him as a war hero and clearing him of blame for the killing of his father’s political rival Julio Nalundasan. The film succeeded: Diosdado Macapagal lost to Marcos Sr. and in 1940, the Supreme Court had acquitted Marcos Sr.

Propaganda films also defended Duterte’s bloody war on drugs and crackdown: 2017’s “Kamandag ng Droga” and “DAD: Durugin ang Droga”; “Alpha: The Right to Kill” and TV series “Amo” in 2018; and “KontrAdiksyon” in 2019. State-run channel PTV4 premiered “Gramo” in 2019 as the administration’s response to the multi-awarded investigative documentary “On the President’s Orders.”

So far, Marcos Jr.’ has focused his efforts on redeeming the family name. The controversial film “Maid in Malacañang” involved his sister, Senator Imee Marcos as chief consultant and executive producer. She was later reported as asking for donors so free tickets could be distributed to the public, mostly students. Its director claimed the movie is a retelling of the “untold story” of the Marcos family’s final days before fleeing Malacañang, from the point of view of a “reliable source.”

Falsehood and lies deceived democracy’s citizens and made them slaves. Once controlled by tyrants, a people will find it more difficult to learn from the past. And yet, such experience makes it more urgent that we understand the truth in our shared history. Knowing our past, we will know ourselves better.

This recollection might help to stir the curiosity about what really happened when Marcos Sr. effectively declared himself President for life. Such understanding would have alerted us to the perils embedded in Duterte’s use of power. The understanding of these two periods in our history should lead to a nation’s collective yearning for truth.

As Timothy Snyder, author of ‘On Tyranny,’ said “To abandon truth is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”

Or lies.