The Press on the eve of Martial Law: On a learning curve

by Luis V. Teodoro

AMONG the first victims of Ferdinand Marcos’ proclamation of martial law 36 years ago were journalists. A dozen or so mostly print practitioners—men and women both– were among those the military had on its “national target list,” and were immediately arrested.

Marcos placed the entire country under martial law when he signed Proclamation 1081 on September 21, 1972, a date that, being divisible by seven, the superstitious despot believed was auspicious. He announced the declaration via a television broadcast only on September 23, but the military had begun arresting opposition leaders, academics, student and labor leaders and journalists in the evening of September 22.

Among the journalists arrested on that date were Graphic magazine editor Luis Mauricio; Daily Mirror editor Amando Doronila; Taliba editor Rolando Fadul; reporters Robert Ordonez and Rosalinda Galang of the Philippines Herald and the Manila Times, respectively; Manila Chronicle columnist Ernesto Granada; columnist Luis Beltran and reporter Ruben Cusipag of the Evening News; broadcaster Jose Mari Velez of ABS-CBN; Philippines Free Press editor and publisher Teodoro Locsin; and even his associate editor Napoleon Rama.

Some journalists escaped the dragnet, among them business reporter Saturnino Ocampo of the Manila Times, and Malacanang reporter Antonio Zumel of the Manila Daily Bulletin. Zumel simply walked away from National Press Club premises in the early morning of September 23, to emerge much later as Chair of the National Democratic Front. But others, including two gossip columnists who had committed the unpardonable crime of not taking seriously Imelda Marcos’ alleged miscarriage in 1971, were to follow Mauricio and company into detention in the succeeding days and weeks.

Marcos’ other reason
The press is always among the first casualties of any political upheaval not only because, its members’ being in the open and therefore vulnerable, they’re far easier targets than armed guerillas. It’s also a preemptive precaution to imprison them.

Any dictatorship worth its salt assumes that journalists will be among the first to protest any diminution of liberties, or at least to be critical of what the new order is doing. They’re also too unpredictable to be allowed to run around loose when “the man on horseback” is consolidating his power.

In the Philippines, however, there was an added reason for Marcos’ ordering the arrest of journalists and shutting down newspapers and broadcast stations. Marcos explicitly identified journalists as part of the “Leftist-Rightist” conspiracy against the government that supposedly led him to place the country under martial law. He was of course thinking primarily of the Lopez family-owned Manila Chronicle and ABS-CBN, and, quite possibly, of such other nationalist publications as the Graphic and Asia Philippines Leader, as in conspiracy with the Left.

Though their owners and editors denied it then and deny it still, some publications did have a Leftist tinge: the political atmosphere and the ongoing ferment were after all conducive to radical analysis and proposals.

They were legal organizations, nevertheless. But their legality was no protection against closure and the arrest of their staff members. Marcos made no distinction between the armed and the unarmed Left. No distinction was necessary, since, under the Anti-Subversion Law, not only communism was illegal, whatever other variations of Leftism, under the terms of that law, were equally illegal simply by existing. Various shades of socialists, anarchists and even hippies who disdained the establishment were thus among those the regime arrested, and/or tortured in safehouses, and threw into its detention centers in Camps Crame and Aguinaldo, Fort Bonifacio and Bicutan.

The armed Left was at that time a small force of a few hundred men and women, while the partisans of the unarmed Left were far more numerous. There was a vast number of legal organizations that could be described as “Left” because of the similarity of their analyses of what ailed the Philippines, as well as their proffered solutions. Among these were student, farmers’ and labor groups, artists’ and writers’ organizations, and even businessmen’s and church people’s associations.

Crisis and ferment

The proliferation of reformist and radical organizations on the eve of martial law was indication as well as result of a society in crisis and ferment, in which traditional ideas were constantly being challenged and new ones born in the discussions, sit-ins, fora and demonstrations that took place on, literally, a daily basis to analyze the crisis of Philippine society as evidenced by the poverty, injustice and mass misery that afflicted it.

Journalists had not been immune to the ferment. By 1972, in a process that had begun during the First Quarter Storm of 1970, the National Press Club had become an activist haven, its doors being open during the presidency of Amando Doronila and the succeeding term of Antonio Zumel to demonstrators being pursued by the police.

Journalists still got into fist and gunfights in NPC premises, and some persisted in amusing themselves by swimming across the Pasig when blind drunk. But something had changed, and that was the pronounced presence in the NPC of both young and old journalists who took seriously their task of informing the public, and who began to proactively report and comment on the social and political issues that were being protested and discussed in the huge demonstrations that periodically clogged the streets.

Whether there was indeed a conspiracy between the multitude of protest groups on the one hand, and the so-called “oligarchy”—a term Marcos favored to describe the Lopezes and those other families opposed to his upstart rule—on the other was another matter, however. The conspiracy the Marcos government claimed it saw was more a matter of these groups’ similarity of analysis and views rather than a formal alliance meant to embarrass and if possible bring down the regime.

As members of a class whose development was being hampered by foreign dominance, the Lopezes, for example, shared with the Left the view that what the country needed were policies that would lead to its rapid progress via industrialization and land reform. While that suited the Left’s developing united front tactics, it was far from being imposed on the nationalist wing of the Philippine economic elite, but was the logical outcome of its determination to govern the country according to its own best interests, which it of course equated with those of the nation’s.

A movement for change

If there was little indication of any conspiracy between the Right and the Left, what was in ample evidence was that there had arisen a common effort—a movement, if you will—in behalf of change, which necessarily meant a critique of the political, economic and social structures various sectors of Philippine society saw as hindrances to the country’s progress and development.

This was the result of a process Church elements referred to as “conscientization” but which the burgeoning student movement—some 50,000 students belonged to radical student organizations such as the Kabataang Makabayan (KM- Patriotic Youth) and the Samahan ng Demokratikong Kabataan (SDK- Demoratic Youth Organization) on the eve of martial law– called “politicization”: the awareness among many sectors of society that to understand their problems and to begin to solve them it was necessary not only to be politically aware but also to be politically active.

Though hampered by their owners’ web of political and economic interests, the media were beginning to play an important role in this process. By reporting not only on the many demonstrations and other mass actions that were taking place all over the country, but also on the issues that drove them, the news media, particularly print, were educating their audiences in the pros and cons and nuances of the debate over policy issues that raged across the country, among them the future of the US military bases, which was of particular relevance not only because they were being used to supply US troops in Vietnam, but also because they had grown into enclaves of affluence in seas of poverty, illegitimate children and sexually-transmitted diseases.

Information and insight

While newspapers like the Manila Times and the Manila Chronicle, as well as the Tagalog-language broadsheet Taliba (Vanguard— a sister publication of the Times), were reporting and commenting on the issues being raised in the parliament of the streets, weekly magazines with respectable circulations like the Philippines Free Press, the Graphic and Asia Philippines Leader were publishing the in-depth articles on Philippine political, social and economic issues needed to assist the making of the informed public opinion that very often led to action in terms of attendance in mass actions and membership in mass organizations. Opinion writing played a key role in developing this kind of awareness. Editorials as well as columns looked into such issues as Philippine-American relations, human rights, and labor issues among others, explaining them to a readership hungry for information and insight.

On the eve of the declaration of martial law there had already developed a corps of journalists that had been politicized by events as well as by their frequent contact with the sectors that were actively pushing for change and reform and even revolution. For its orientation and political consciousness, this corps of journalists was a de facto part of the movement for change that like a vast convulsion was challenging the Philippine establishment. For the regime, knowledge of this reality was an added impetus for the arrest of journalists.

It was no surprise that the alternative press, reawakened by the political crisis that the martial law period was from its long sleep induced by the end of the Japanese period, was populated as much by journalists from the pre-martial law media “mainstream” as by the recent graduates of schools with strong activist traditions.

Before the martial law period, for example, Jose Burgos was a reporter of average distinction in the mainstream press. During the martial law period he emerged as a practitioner deeply committed to the truth-telling that his previous life had taught him was the necessary task of journalists. His story was repeated hundreds of times among hundreds of other journalists who were to eventually write for and run the underground newspapers (the National Democratic Front’s Liberation was first edited by a woman reporter who had been in the pre-martial law Manila Times) that began publication almost from Day One of the martial law period, as well as the legal publications that constituted the above ground counterparts of the alternative press. The alternative press during the martial law period sprang fully formed from the mainstream press that before the declaration was already on the crest of a learning curve on what journalism’s role should be in a society in crisis.

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