The Big Chill at GMA-7

What Proclamation 1017 did
The Big Chill at GMA-7
By Booma B. Cruz

In less than 24 hours after President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo placed the country under a state of national emergency on Feb. 24, news organizations felt the chilling effect of Proclamation 1017.

The Daily Tribune was raided at around 12:30 a.m., with copies of the anti-Arroyo newspaper confiscated. Carried out without a warrant, the break-in—which brought back memories of martial law—earned the collective condemnation of the local press as well as international media groups. Behind the media’s brave front, however, was a very disturbing and less-talked-about reality—self-censorship.

On Feb. 25 and 26, the special presentation of the talk show Diyos at Bayan on the 20th anniversary of the Edsa People Power 1 revolution was not aired by QTV-11 and GMA-7, respectively.  The decision was reportedly made by heads of GMA-7.

“Ang dahilan na ibinigay ay anti-government daw ’yung nilalaman ng discussion,” says Kata Inocencio, co-host of Bro. Eddie Villanueva in the talk show.

Among the guests of Diyos at Bayan in the cancelled show were two priests, including retired Bishop Julio Labayen, two nuns, three civic group representatives, and three lawyers. Aside from sharing insights about Edsa 1, they were asked for their opinions on Proclamation 1017. The guests did not approve of the edict and explained their positions. Bishop Labayen said the truth about the Garci tapes should come out, adding that people would be satisfied only when they know the truth.

Threats to gov’t?
A broadcast journalist since 1986, Inocencio was surprised by the decision not to air the show which was taped and delivered to GMA-7 Friday evening, Feb. 24, the day Proclamation 1017 was issued.

Inocencio says she could not understand why the station should feel that two nuns, two priests, and three lawyers could pose a threat to the government.  “How threatening are they to national security at this time? I don’t see why anybody should be threatened by these groups of people,” she says. (Probe, which featured the issue, tried to get the side of QTV-11 and GMA-7 but both networks refused to talk or issue a statement.)

According to Inocencio, Diyos at Bayan tried to bargain and suggested that a disclaimer—that GMA-7 has nothing to do with the production of the special—be flashed on the screen before and after the show. She even offered to “edit out whatever they think is unacceptable to the govern-ment.”

“Maybe for lack of time, there was no more opportunity to do that. Probably. I do not know. Sabi sa amin, there is a decision already not to air that particular episode and to just replay a two-week-old episode na panis na,” Inocencio adds.

Arlene Retana, executive producer of Diyos at Bayan, says GMA-7 was probably not sold on the idea of a disclaimer because this would indicate that the material did contain something controversial.

Looking back, she thinks the network’s catchphrase, “Walang kinikilingan,” might be the reason for the show’s censure. “Walang government stand sa program kaya baka hindi balanced for them.”

But Diyos at Bayan did not invite any politician or government official in the panel discussion because it wanted to give the floor to the public. The taped portion of the show had interviews with former president Fidel Ramos and national security adviser Jose Almonte, who both talked about Edsa 1. Former senator Gringo Honasan was initially invited to the program to talk about Edsa 1 but he did not show up, forcing the scheduled Thursday taping to pack up. Diyos at Bayan changed the roster of its guests and invited the nuns, priests, representatives of civil society, and lawyers.

As early as Friday, before the taping of the show, Retana was advised by GMA-7 programming to be careful with the direction of the show’s discussion. She received a text Saturday from GMA-7 programming, saying, “Confirmed na replay tayo.”

With Proclamation 1017 already in place, Diyos at Bayan staffers say they followed the station’s advice.

Inocencio recalls taking extra care in the discussion, even reminding her guests to go slow with their comments. “And if you’ll notice in that particular show, Bro. Eddie chose to stay away,” she adds.

A defeated presidential candidate and one of the leading personalities who asked for the resignation of Arroyo, Bro. Eddie did not show up during the taping because he reportedly did not want to add political color to the discussions. Besides, there was also talk that he might be picked up for questioning by the authorities.

Bro. Eddie owns the franchise of QTV-11, formerly ZOE-TV-11. Under a special lease arrange-ment, ZOE-TV agreed to lease the entire TV airtime block of the station to GMA-7, which now handles the management and operations of the station that was relaunched only last November.

In a separate arrangement, ZOE-TV and GMA-7 agreed to air Diyos at Bayan on QTV-11 every Saturday at 11:30 p.m. and on GMA-7 every Sunday at 12:30 a.m. The show is replayed on QTV-11 every Tuesday at the 11:30 p.m. slot.

On air since 1998, Diyos at Bayan used to broadcast nationwide over Channel 9. All its episodes were aired by the sequestered government station.

Not the first time
Inocencio says Bro. Eddie has complained to GMA-7 about the censorship of their Edsa presentation. As of press time, the Diyos at Bayan staff has not heard from either Bro. Eddie or the GMA-7 management.

According to Retana, it was the second time that GMA-7 tried to prevent an episode of Diyos at Bayan from airing. While people behind Diyos at Bayan are not happy with the censorship of their show, Inocencio stresses that she and Bro. Eddie understand and recognize the prerogative of GMA-7 to review and screen the programs to be aired in the sister networks.

Even then, Inocencio says, “Twenty years after we fought for the return of democracy and freedom, suddenly we find ourselves gagged and prevented from telling the truth, from expressing ourselves. I’m really disappointed with what has happened but I cannot blame QTV-11 and GMA-7 for what they did. I’m sure they were also not sure about how to behave given the situation. My only disappointment is they played a little bit too safe just to make sure that the government and the NTC (National Telecommunications Commission) do not get back at them by canceling their franchise or suspending their operation. I understand them fully well and I believe Bro. Eddie understands that fully well. My only disappointment is nagpatakot tayo,” she adds.

Inocencio believes that Diyos at Bayan, QTV-11, and GMA-7 are all victims of Proclamation 1017’s chilling effect—the ever-present threat of a government takeover of media institutions. “Sa akin ,pag natakot ka at nag-blink ka, talo ka na,” she says.

What is more worrisome, according to Inocencio, is that the people will suffer too and lose their right to information and free expression. “We just want the truth out and that is the purpose of our program and if we are prevented from speaking our hearts and speaking the truth, what are we now delivering? Ano na ang mangyayari sa bayan natin?”

Proclamation 1017 and the experience of Diyos at Bayan have posed a quandary to Inocencio, who considers media as modern-day prophets tasked to tell the truth. “Napapaisip ako ngayon kung mag-iingat ba ako? Ano bang pinag-iingatan ko? Ano ba ang dapat kong katakutan if I am on the side of truth? Dapat wala akong katakutan, di ba?”

Still hurting from the censorship, Inocencio hopes that the issue will be settled amicably between ZOE-TV and GMA-7.  But more than anything else, she prays that media will unite and stand up for its rights.

A timely prayer considering Philippine National Police chief Arturo Lomibao’s heeded call for self-censorship and a government plan to sit down with media executives to come up coverage guidelines—surely, an indecent proposition in a democracy.

Booma Cruz is an editorial consultant to Probe which is aired on ABS-CBN.

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