Heroes of Press Freedom: Jose Burgos Jr. – A Timeless Hero
Heroes of Press Freedom:
Jose Burgos Jr.
A Timeless Hero
By Lourdes Molina Fernandez
IT WAS the height of irony that a newspaper that was part of the “crony press” under Ferdinand Marcos, and from which sprang the core group of reporters and editors that gave world press freedom icon Jose Burgos Jr. the momentum to transform his phenomenal “mosquito” newspapers into top-selling dailies, would carry the burden of remembering.
In an editorial marking the third death anniversary of Joe Burgos, founder of the newspapers WE Forum, Malaya, and Tinig ng Masa—trailblazers in the alternative press during martial law—the tabloid People’s Journal, owned by the Romualdez family, extolled Burgos’s contribution to press freedom.
It recalled how, in year 2000, as part of worldwide turn-of-the-millennium events around the world, the International Press Institute (IPI) selected Burgos as one of the 50 “World Press Freedom Heroes of the 20th Century.” As the only Filipino so chosen, Burgos joined the ranks of men and women whose lives and work formed an indispensable thread in their countries’ democratic quilt.
At the awarding rites in Boston, Burgos was among just about two dozen awardees who made it to the event. The other half of the group had either died or, due to infirmity, failed to attend, proof of how journalism—especially the true and passionate kind—can be a most hazardous profession.
In the aftermath of Edsa 1986 and 14 years before the Boston rites, Burgos was at the United Nations, accepting the UN Interpress Award as “International Journalist of the Year,” again for his work in the “mosquito press” under Marcos.
Given all that has happened in the past two decades after Marcos left, it is remarkably amazing how short Filipino memories can be. This is especially evident today, when the journalism profession is once more under attack here and around the world, and the Philippines has been ranked, rightly or wrongly, as the second most dangerous place to practice journalism in next to Iraq.
A pretend democracy
The Philippine context becomes even more remarkable because here, there is none of the complicated war, either physically or symbolically, that’s being waged in Iraq. There are no suicide bombers here, no foreign invader, none of the bitter sectarian feuds—or at least not on the same scale. This is a democracy, or a pretend democracy. Yet journalists are unsafe not just from assassins but also from the Damoclian sword of (il)legalities, chiefly the libel law, used by the powers that be.
In a state of unfreedom then, who best to remember, and thereby draw inspiration from, than a world press freedom hero?
That was exactly the point made by National Press Club (NPC) president Roy Mabasa on Burgos’s third death anniversary last Nov. 16, 2006.
Mabasa, along with NPC director Ding Generoso, organized simple comme-moration rites and led about 20 journalists in lighting candles outside the door of the NPC’s mezzanine office, putting there Joe’s most memorable photo where his face conveyed gentle rebuke. It was, after all, at the NPC where Joe’s mosquito press saga began in the summer of 1977.
For all that has been said about the NPC ceasing to be relevant or becoming just a social club, the unalterable truth is that it served as a true haven for journalists and democracy leaders and activists in that dark age when it truly mattered.
Testing the waters
When Joe Burgos and his “associates”—some 20 college and high school editors who sought his help to revive the College Editors Guild of the Philippines (or the CEGP, which was blacklisted by the military during martial law)—set up the WE (For the Young Filipino) in May 1977, the then 36-year-old former star reporter of the Manila Times-Daily Mirror-Taliba group of Chino Roces was still “testing the waters.”
He wanted to open an independent paper, a fortnightly, because he bristled at the thought that under martial law, newspapers could not be set up “just like that,” as in the best tradition of the 1935 Constitution, without passing through Da Apo’s Print Media Council. Or that any paper that got a permit could also have the same revoked, “just like that,” if anyone in the dictator’s camp wanted to.
Joe wanted to play his cards right, so he combined boldness with intelligence. He was saddened by the thought that since 1972, countless unsung heroes had died or been persecuted for exercising their freedom of expression, and he didn’t want to give the dictator’s minions an easy time.
With its first issue on May 1, 1977, the WE (later renamed as WE Forum), had its first brush with the Metrocom, the dreaded Metropolitan Command of the then Philippine Constabulary. Three staffers were picked up as they were covering a rally that day. Still, in calibrated fashion, the paper kept testing the limits. Its tone grew increasingly strident; the exposés stung even more with each issue. Between 1979 and 1982, the newspaper’s reach and circulation grew.
On December 1982, after publishing a series of articles by retired military colonel Bonifacio Gillego on the fake war medals of the dictator, the WE Forum and Joe Burgos got it from Marcos.
Burgos, his father Joe Sr., brothers Edward and Ramon, brother-in-law Angel Tronqued, and columnists led by former UP dean of students Armando Malay, CEGP founder Ernie Rodriguez, former senator Soc Rodrigo, and La Salle professor Salvador Roxas Gonzales, were hauled off to jail as the Metrocom Intelligence and Security Group (MISG) raided the paper’s editorial and printing office on Quezon Avenue.
For two weeks, the dictator parried overwhelming international pressure from democratic and press freedom groups as the Department of Justice lodged sedition charges against Burgos and the others before a Quezon City court. They were defended by human rights lawyers Joker Arroyo, Rene Saguisag, Jejomar Binay, Wigberto Tañada, and Mar-tiniano Vivo.
As the trial continued, Burgos and the other accused were released. In the meantime, WE Forum filed a case with the Supreme Court seeking to declare the raid by Col. Rolando Abadilla “illegal” for its being done without proper warrants.
A month after the raid, Joe, with modest financial help from his father and the unfailing, rock-solid support of wife Edith, resumed publication of his fledgling second paper, Malaya. Unlike WE Forum, Malaya has not been charged with sedition, so Joe felt that he could put out the paper.
His lawyers told him that was a very risky thing to do, but Joe replied, “All I am is a journalist. If you tell me that I cannot practice what I do best, then I’m nothing.”
Thus was history made. In January 1983, Malaya came out as a weekly paper, bolder in its exposés and sharp and incisive in its analyses. Seven months later, Burgos’s foresight would find vindication in history when returning senator and Marcos arch rival Ninoy Aquino was killed at the Manila International Airport tarmac.
From being just a part of the welcoming party, Joe, one of Ninoy’s close friends, quickly found himself doing the work of reporter, photographer, editor, and publisher. In the next few days, millions of angry Filipinos would buy Malaya for its coverage of the assassination and Ninoy’s historic burial. Thus did the paper once derided by Marcos as a “mosquito” become, like the gnats and locusts that swooped down on Egypt, a plague upon a stubborn and arrogant pharaoh.
An invisible army
But the spectacular success of the Burgos papers they owed not just to the courage of one journalist, his family, his associates, or even his lawyers. To those who never tired of listening to him, Burgos kept saying that they owed their success to the Filipino people’s willingness to assert their constitutional right to know. He never tired of reminding one and all of the invisible army of supporters that kept the mosquito press going, even under the most impossible circumstances.
At that time, Malaya did not have a printing press. The MISG kept the WE Forum printing press from the 1982 raid until December 1984 when the Supreme Court finally declared the raid illegal and all evidence against Burgos et. al. inadmissible.
When the military was ordered by the court to return the WE Forum press, it was in such a state of disrepair that Malaya, which was then running copies in the hundreds of thousands as a national daily, could not use it.
Malaya instead relied on one courageous printer (who to this day refuses to be identified, telling this writer that, “Who knows? You guys might still need me someday.”) and three other back-up printers.
The paper had no telephone and was often bugged by mysterious blackouts that hit only its office and no other along West Avenue. By then, Malaya had been transferred from a string of “safehouses” near Burgos’s old house in Quezon City.
The most memorable of these “safehouses” was one that was set up behind a vulcanizing shop blocks away from the Welcome Rotonda. Running Malaya was a classic guerrilla operation, using a series of “sentries” and sentinels that would guide the few whom Burgos had trusted to join his newspaper just weeks after WE Forum was raided in 1982.
Yet for all the risks, Malaya drew, like a magnet, a bigger army of invisible supporters who kept it going.
In a special supplement on Edsa’s anniversary in the year 2000, when the Edsa People Power Commission, including former President Cory Aquino, gave Burgos the special citation on behalf of the mosquito press, I described the situation almost two decades before:
“Despite its small and meager funding, WE Forum [and later, Malaya] survived because of the support it got from a vast, spontaneous network of concerned Filipinos. Teachers and professionals donated office supplies; conscience-stricken bureaucrats supplied Burgos with an endless stream of stories—from simple tip-offs on the latest, hottest administration scandals and the shopping sprees of Imelda Marcos, to documents and technical data on government irregularities. Many offered to be WE Forum dealers despite the risks; policemen and soldiers conducted whimsical confisca-tion of copies, especially when there were stories on military atrocities and human rights violations.”
As the NPC statement and the People’s Journal editorial of Nov. 16, 2006, aptly put it, the heroism of Joe lay not just in his singular courage but in his infectious courage—his ability to get people to do the right thing, despite the risks.
Darkness on the horizon
The Burgos papers succeeded because the man at the helm never forgot the invaluable solidarity forged with others who had taken the same path of asserting press freedom. Joe would always pay attention to the militants, the Church-backed press of small newsletters, the non-government organizations and social workers, among others.
Many of them had been scattered or driven underground in the heat of martial law, especially after Ninoy and former senator Jose Diokno were bundled off at midnight by their military captors to Laur, Nueva Ecija. Ninoy was caught smuggling out letters to newspapers in Bangkok and others who supported Philippine democracy.
When that happened, Cory recalled in a tribute to Joe a few years back, she had seen only darkness on the horizon, and for once she felt no one had been left because all of Ninoy’s friends were in prison, in exile or underground.
And then, she said, came Joe Burgos and his newspapers.
Last year, TIME magazine rightly put Cory Aquino on the cover of its special edition honoring its 60 “Asian Heroes.” Also on the list were Eugenia Apostol and Letty Magsanoc for their role in a Mr. and Ms. special edition that became a big hit after the 1983 Ninoy assassination.
The magazine’s choice is its prerogative, but the saddest thing in the TIME article explaining the choice was its utter historical inaccuracy. Until the “dynamic duo came along,” it said, the Philippine press was afraid of Marcos.
Go figure where TIME magazine, with its army of fact checkers, put the Philippines in the years 1977 to 1983. Or even earlier, from 1972, when the militant press—whose members were not even trained journalists like Burgos—took the risks. Were we in some black hole that has been excised from memory?
TIME might like to ask the brave woman on its cover why she said Joe Burgos was there in the beginning, when there was utter darkness and Ninoy and Diokno were on the brink of disappearing after they were taken without her knowledge from Camp Bonifacio to Laur.
And TIME might like to ask the IPI why it called Joe a world press freedom hero.
This is not a contest on who did better; not even a contest of metaphors and labels, such as those showered on Joe (“Cincinnatus,” “Braveheart”) when he died.
This is just about remembe-ring—and remembering well. History is learned well only if the retelling is right.
Lourdes “Chuchay” Molina Fernandez was the first editor in chief of Malaya. She is now editor-in-chief of the BusinessMirror.