A Tale of Contrasts: Ten-day coverage of Martial Law commemoration

SEPTEMBER 21 marks one of the darkest days of Philippine history, when  President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. issued Proclamation 1081 which shut down the system of government under which he was elected. The order revoked all civil liberties as Marcos claimed sole authority, ruling as a dictator, backed by the military and police. Swift and sudden, the grab for power would last for fourteen years, installing the family to dominate economic, political and social affairs. First Lady Imelda Marcos shared power in what has been described as a “conjugal dictatorship.” 

Scope of review

From September 11 to 21, CMFR reviewed four news channels (ABS-CBN, GMA, TV5, and CNN Philippines); six Manila-based broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin, Daily Tribune, Manila Times, and Manila Standard) and its online counterparts. Online media Rappler, AlterMidya, and VERA Files were also monitored.

During the week and on the day of the 51st commemoration, mounting testimonials from victims of abuse and repression were given space and time by the press. But perhaps in anticipation of the upcoming commemoration or just a matter of habit, some media reported statements and comments made by public officials that gave the period a positive spin a week before. 

Birthday gift?

On the late dictator’s birthday on September 11, Inquirer.net, Manila Bulletin, Daily Tribune, Manila Times, and The Philippine Star echoed President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s statements that his father “fought and stood for” peace and order, calling on young leaders and officials to be inspired by his father. Inquirer’s story had a paragraph at the end of the report saying how critics and historians described martial law as a dark period, Star only included the activities of the “Marcos Fiesta”, while Bulletin, Tribune, and Times only recorded Marcos’ speech.

President Marcos Jr. made this remark in Ilocos Norte on the occasion of his father’s birthday, displaying a rice paddy art of his face and the slogan Bagong Pilipinas. Philippine Star, Manila Standard, Daily Tribune, and Manila Bulletin went all out to celebrate the program on their front pages in full color. 

Inquirer.net also reported Senator Imee Marcos’ jab against the handling of the rice problem by the second Marcos administration, remarking that her father, Marcos Sr. would rise from the dead and declare martial law to solve the rice problem. Further, Manila Standard and Inquirer.net echoed Senator Robin Padilla’s statement that the declaration of martial law “saved” the country from communism.

Dictatorship without the dictator

Since the weekend and on the same date, media picked up reports on a curriculum change: A Department of Education memo ordered the removal of the name “Marcos” from the phrase “Diktadurang (dictatorship of the) Marcos,” a term used in the Grade 6 Araling Panlipunan (Social Studies) curriculum.

Media gave voice to those opposed to the order. From September 11 until September 21, most of the media cited teachers, academic, and advocacy groups who criticized the instruction. The Alliance of Concerned Teachers, Congress of Teachers/Educators for Nationalism and Democracy, Coordinating Council of Private Education Associations, and the Campaign Against the Return of the Marcoses and Martial Law among others said that removing the name of the former President from dictatorship would be distorting his role in the country’s history. 

Recalling, remembering

On the week of the commemoration, CNN Philippines was the first, September 18, to feature survivors on TV who recalled the horrors of martial law. On the same day, AlterMidya published online a video report showing a one-on-one talk with veteran journalist Inday Espina-Varona and photojournalist Lito Ocampo who both experienced Martial Law, this as part of a series where artists and journalists shared their experiences during the Marcos dictatorship with the younger generation of the industry. 

On September 21, online media went into action, publishing visual posters reminding the public what transpired “on the day.” The visuals in the morning of the day promptly focused on facts with numbers and various human rights violations, and featured quotes from survivors of their experiences.

TV and online reports tracked the protest events and actions through the day. Activists pointed to the “parallelisms” of martial law then and now. Common themes discussed were the curriculum change and human rights violations. Human rights group Karapatan said “palpable imprints are existent even without the formal declaration of martial law,” pointing to the anti-terrorism law, and the recent abductions and killings of critics of the government. Inquirer discussed other issues as “old” but “new again under another Marcos,” such as the Maharlika fund, Kadiwa stores, and the first family’s jet-setting ways. 

TV5’s Frontline Tonight explained through court decisions and documents the truth of Marcos Sr.’s dictatorship and the military takeover, their family’s ill-gotten wealth, and the “golden era” which in reality pushed almost half of Filipinos into poverty.

Further, CNN Philippines interviewed students that showed the lack of knowledge about the period, with students themselves saying they need to learn more. In ANC’s Dateline Philippines, anchor Karmina Constantino asked a student leader what he had to say to his peers who told him to “just move on.” The student replied: “moving on requires justice.” 

Meanwhile, GMA’s 24 Oras and Rappler captured the police in action as they kicked the candles lit for martial law victims, and sang karaoke in an attempt to drown out or divert attention from the chants of protesters.

In print media, Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star remembered martial law by citing martial law victims and bishops, respectively. Manila Times only published a report on rallies set while Manila Bulletin published an editorial “reflecting on history.” 

On the day itself, the Daily Tribune and Manila Standard did not publish reports on martial law.

Voices of Truth

Politics has taken over the question of teaching history, resulting in a failure to pass on to the next generation the lessons of the past. This question is a result of the period itself, as Filipinos had not undertaken the formal process to establish historical truth. There have been many attempts to record for posterity the testimonials of victims and survivors and their families. And yet, it is easy enough to drown these voices when politicians take the lead in a campaign period. 

Because the dictator’s son won enough votes to lead the country in 2022, the issue has become more of a challenge. Does an electoral victory include the grant of re-writing history? 

On the question of the truth about Martial Law, the media have done this year well to give voice to the minority. If elections are indeed central to our system, then Filipinos must learn to listen to these voices. The democratic system in many countries give sufficient importance to this role, as all, both winners and losers remain citizens with rights and privileges. 

The lesson for the media ahead is to give those representing the minority more space than they are customarily given. As they did this year to those who lost so much in the time of history called Martial Law.