Notes on the alternative press

A national conference on the alternative press is likely to be held in October at the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication in Diliman, Quezon City, with the stated purpose of, among others, recalling, and if necessary, redefining and reframing both the concept as well as the role of those media organizations that claim the title.

About 20 media organizations from all over the country—among them newspapers, radio stations, video and film makers as well as online news sites—are expected to send representatives. “Bagong Hamon sa Bagong Panahon (New Challenges in a New Age)” will be the conference theme.

Conventional wisdom assumes that the alternative press—a phrase widely used during the Marcos dictatorship to refer to certain newspapers—is of fairly recent vintage and merely grew out of the anti-martial law resistance, particularly during the last months of the Marcos regime. But it actually has a longer history.

The “alternative press”—sometimes referred to as the independent press to distinguish it from the press controlled by political and corporate interests—was during the martial law period assumed to be that section of the press that, proceeding from a perspective different from that of the press under government regulation and supportive of the regime, presented (mostly through print, although some were beginning to use email in the mid-1980s) information and analysis beyond the regime-approved and officially encouraged limits. The alternative press would address the absence of choice inherent in the media system sanctioned by the authoritarian regime by providing other media sources that would meet the citizen need for accurate and fair information.

The alternative press traditionally refers to non-corporate media organizations. That characteristic makes it immune to economic and political pressure and enhances its capacity for independent reporting and analysis. In the Philippines during the martial law period, it was the alternative to the regulated, officially approved and sanctioned press. Despite the risk of arrest for defying regime restrictions, Jose Burgos’ Malaya and We Forum, as well as such publications as Signs of the Times and the Church-initiated Philippine News and Features were among the alternative media organizations that developed during the period. These and dozens of other publications reported on such concerns as human rights, environmental degradation, children and women’s rights, political crises and the resistance to dictatorship, and other issues the controlled press was either unwilling or unable to report on.

The alternative press’ emphasis on reporting those aspects of governance and social and political reality that would otherwise have remained unknown to the citizenry was especially useful in providing the information citizens needed as a guide to informed action during the martial law period. But it was arguably even more crucial much earlier in Philippine history, during the late nineteenth century.

As alternatives to the dominant Spanish colonial press, the Propaganda Movement’s La Solidaridad and the Katipunan’s Kalayaan provided the information and interpretation that helped mobilize Ilustrado and mass participation in the reform and revolutionary movements.
In the US colonial period, El Renacimiento and kindred publications demanding and agitating for immediate Philippine independence similarly provided the information on, and analysis of, what was happening in the country that was missing in the colonially-sanctioned press.

During the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, when the Japanese used the corporate media that had developed under the US colonial regime to influence and shape public opinion, the guerrilla and underground press met the citizen need for accurate information on the state of the country, the anti-Japanese resistance, and developments on the war fronts across the world.

The alternative press has had a longer history than is usually thought, and has played the crucial role of providing the accurate information needed at the heights of the perennial crisis that has defined Philippine reality for over a century. The core reason for this distinctive capacity is its not being burdened with the political and economic ties that characterize the dominant press, which during the Spanish period was controlled by the colonial government, and from the period of US colonial rule to the present has been controlled by political and business interests.

Because unburdened by such interests to protect, the alternative or independent press has the most potential to provide the citizenry the fair, accurate and unbiased information it needs to make sense of what is happening. Crisis defines the Philippine social and political reality, and during those times when the crisis becomes specially acute, such as during the revolutionary period, the Japanese occupation and the 14 years of open dictatorship, the alternative press has proven more than equal to that task. The alternative press tradition is in that sense the mainstream tradition and its history the true history of the Philippine press.

For all the hype about political stability, economic development, democracy, and the rule of law, the Philippines is undoubtedly still in crisis, as evidenced by the persistence of poverty and injustice and the consequent social unrest these generate; the decades- long monopoly over political power of a handful of dynasties that have made collaboration with foreign interests and self- aggrandizement their first principle; and the vast corruption that has metastasized in both the private and public sectors. And yet the Philippine press and media owned and controlled by narrow political and economic interests, while reporting the symptoms of the crisis when it suits them (and ignoring them when those interests are in conflict with the public’s right to information), have failed to even identify its roots, much less provide any sustained analysis of its causes.

This unwillingness—and often, this inability—to provide the information and analysis that could make a difference in the life of this country has for decades been the main weakness of the corporate press. Its commitment to the defense and enhancement of the interests behind it is what has made its claims to independence hollow, and reduced it to irrelevancy during those times of national, social and political urgency when the citizenry needs reliable information most.

In comparison, the capacity of the alternative press to provide that information has been its main strength. Today as in the past it continues despite great difficulties and even threats to the lives of some practitioners, to report human rights violations, the destruction of the environment, labor, farmer and women’s issues, and governance and political concerns. The alternative press’ potential to be of even greater service to the realization of the centuries- old Filipino hopes for a society of justice, freedom and prosperity is what makes the review and evaluation of the present state of the alternative press resident in several dozen media organizations scattered all over the country and online necessary. Hopefully the October conference will lead to the reaffirmation of its historic commitment to the imperative of accurately reporting and interpreting Philippine reality as the condition for its transformation, the enhancement of its skills, and renewed awareness of its critical role in contemporary society.