Forgetting, or Not Knowing: Media and Martial Law

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I didn’t quite now how to do this paper. The martial law period is a personal matter to me. It is not only because I was imprisoned for seven months, from October 1972 to May 1973. It is also because of the many people I knew, some of them among the brightest and best sons and daughters of the Filipino people–students and poets, artists and doctors, teachers and lawyers, journalists and farmers, workers and small businessmen, nuns and priests, and plain citizens of their generation–who lost their lives, were separated from their loved ones, or suffered torture and other indignities during that brutal period.

Along the way, during the dark ages of the Marcos terror, I also saw, and heard about, crimes so unspeakable one is hard put to call the perpetrators human. Though with the foreknowledge of failure, I will try to maintain some kind of academic, meaning neutral, tone in this piece, despite my belief that martial law was too important a period to leave to academics to discuss. That period needs to be understood by the millions of people in this country to whom it is either an abstract construct and something far removed from their concerns–or, if at all they know something about it, regard it as an aberration, an abnormality in a system that is otherwise sane and reasonable.

My own view is that martial law and its architects were the logical children of the political, economic and social system. They included not only Ferdinand Marcos but also the “Rolex 12”–the generals and civilian officials Marcos took into his confidence in planning and implementing this vast conspiracy against the Filipino people–as well as the murderers and torturers he let loose upon this land so that he might continue to rule it.

Since the system that gave them birth has remained basically unchanged, it has not only bred, but is even now still breeding the same creatures from the black lagoon of corruption, national betrayal and injustice that is at its core. Yet not all of these creatures repose in its dark depths still, many have resurfaced and now actually walk among us in various guises.

Remembrance is indeed the only antidote to the return of authoritarian rule. But what once made it possible–and, from the standpoint of Marcos and company, necessary–is still with us and makes it reprise, though not necessarily in the same form, a constant peril.

It is from within that framework that I will now address the task at hand, which is, What happened to media during the martial law period, and what that has meant to media and this country.

When Ferdinand Marcos placed the entire country under martial law in September 21, 1972, among the immediate targets of the military for arrest were journalists and other media practitioners who shared one characteristics. All had been critical of the Marcos government, to some extent or the other, although two gossip columnists (Amelita Reysio-Cruz and George Sison) who were similarly thrown into Camp Crame had also committed the unpardonable offense of making fun it.

Included in the Armed Forces of the Philippines “National List Of Target Personalities” were reporters, editors and columnists from the Manila Times (e.g., Rosalinda Galang), the Daily Mirorr (Amando Doronia), the Philippines Herald (Bobby Ordonez), the Manila Chronicle (Ernesto Granada), the Philippine News Service (Manuel Almario) the Evening News (e.g., Luis Beltran) and Taliba (Rolanda Fadul), at that time the only broadsheet in Filipino. Juan Mercado of the Press Foundation of Asia was also arrested.

Writers from Graphic magazine (Luis R. Mauricio), Asia-Philippines Leader (Ninotchka Rosca), and the Philippines Free Press (Napoleon Rama) were also imprisoned at the Camp Crame Detention Center. Broadcasters from radio and television (Jose Mari Velez and Roger Arrienda) completed the list. With the arrests, all media organizations were also shut down. In the morning of September 23 people awoke without a newspaper on their doorsteps and with only the hiss of empty air over their radios.

The arrest of journalists still occurs with alarming frequency today, though, so far, only in other countries. In those countries journalists have been so targeted for such “reasons” as insulting heads of state, an offense we call libel in the Philippines, as well as other , even more basic reasons most people would have no problem second-guessing.

Media practice after all involves the exercise of power: the power to arm other men and women with information on matters that bear on their lives, enabling them to form opinions about them, and to take action in the furtherance of those views.

Journalists, because they deal in information, can help populations make sense of what’s happening, and no matter how indirectly, can be instrumental in mass decision-making. Journalists are potential lead actors in the democratization process, social change, and even revolutions.

While it is not journalists who usually overthrow governments, they can arm the consciousness of those who do–the citizens who, having understood their society’s as well as their own state from various sources of information including, and, in many cases today, primarily the mass media, storm prisons and palaces.

To justify the arrest of media practitioners and the padlocking of media, Marcos characterized Philippine media as licentious and abusive, and worse, involved in what he labeled the “Leftist-Rightist conspiracy to overthrow the government.” (Presidential Proclamation 1081) This was merely another way of saying, however, that the information some media practitioners were disseminating was not favorable to the Marcos government.

But the licentiousness of the Philippine press before September 21, 1972 was evident in many cases familiar to contemporary observers. It was evident in the sensationalized treatment of news, in the liberties that were often taken with the facts in order to angle stories to sell more copies, in the emphasis on sex and violence of which not only the tabloids were guilty.

But the licentiousness, much like today, tended to conceal the fact that there was at the same time honest, in-depth reporting, informed editorials and columns, and plain good writing. The source of these parallel development was an entire generation of journalists and writers who had come of age during the intellectual and political ferment of the mid-60s that occurred during the rapid growth of the radical student movement. In the 40s and 50s conservative to the point of reaction, the Philippine press in the 60s accepted into the profession–unknowingly, I am certain–young journalists whose outlooks were reformist, even revolutionary.

Veterans of the campus and national struggles of that period, these young practitioners helped politicize some of their older colleagues, among whom, in any case, there were remnants of 1950s radicalism. This reformist-revolutionary wing of the press produced the reports, the opinion pieces and the writing that echoed the demands on the streets and in the countryside for fundamental change, and the condemnation of “imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism.”

Who or what did this phrase refer to? Ferdinand Marcos was first of all the arch-bureaucrat capitalist striving to enrich himself and his own through the office to which the Filipino people had regrettably elected him twice. He was–necessarily, some would say–also the protector of the feudal tenancy system (“the worst of the planet,” according to Roy Prosterman), while at the same time serving as chair of the local executive committee–the Philippine government–of what is now politely referred to as US hegemonism.

It was therefore not only on the streets, where democracy was being given substance by the tens of thousands people who expressed their demands for fundamental change through the demonstrations that from 1970 to 1972 were taking place daily all over the country, that Marcos was being attacked. Marcos and the entire system he headed were also under threat from the newspaper. They were also under siege in the arts and in the literature that had flowered in the bosom of the vast people’s movements of the 60s and early 70s.

But the threat was neither one of physical annihilation nor of being overthrown-at least not yet. The threat was that of being exposed. Slowly but surely unmasked, Marcos and his cohorts could no longer rule in the old way–that is, under democratic pretenses, with the trappings of liberal democracy including press freedom.

One of Ferdinand Marcos’ first acts as strongman was therefore to shut down newspapers and other media and to create a censorship system to ensure that the press–at least that part of it that he allowed to resume publication–would support rather than challenge his regime. This system was part of a package of intimidation which included Marcos-amended anti-subversion, rebellion and sedition laws and even a rumor-mongering decree.

Just how correct the regime was in regulating the press, instituting a system of censorship and seeing to it that only reporting and opinion-writing favorable to it appeared in the press may be gleaned from what happened both during the 14 years of the martial law period as well as afte.

My own remembrance is that during that period writing, whether journalism or literature, ceased to be fun and became a chore best set aside for better times-or perhaps reserved for the underground press. (After my release from General Fidel Ramos’ detention center, I had to submit everything I wrote, including several pieces for the Philippine Heritage Encyclopedia then about to be published in Autralia, to a sergeant at the Civil Relations Service office of the Armed Forces of the Philippines at Camp Aguinaldo, who stamped each page “approved.” That was guaranteed to take the fun out of something one not only really loved to do, but also respected both as a craft and as a commitment.)

A number of other journalists and writers arrived at the same conclusion, some vowing, as my 23-year senior but compadre Nick Joaquin, a.k.a. Quijano de Manila, did never to write until the regime had passed into a state of remembrance past contempt. Others went back to law practice, as Manuel Almario and Luis Mauricio did, or left the country altogether, as Eddie Monteclaro and Amando Doronila for sometime did. Some chose to write for the underground press, among them the National Democratic Front’s Liberation, as did Antonio Zumel, and, until their arrest and torture, Satur Ocampo, Carolina S. Malay, and Jose F. Lacaba.

This meant that the practice of above-ground journalism was left mostly in the hands of those who where either uncritical of the regime, or supportive of it. This removed from the profession some of its most respected and capable practitioners, making the profession so much the lesser for it. This had an impact as well on the younger journalists who no longer had the benefit of learning from the experience of their older colleagues through the informal newsroom apprenticeship system?for decades the process through which the younger generation learned from the older.

At the same time the arrest of the stubbornly critical–for example Jose Burgos of We Forum and Malaya and Antonio Ma. Nieva of the Bulletin–continued, to drive home the point that the regime would brook no criticism. Later the arrests became “invitations” extended to critical journalists for them to face panels of interrogators, which happened to Melinda de Jesus and several other women journalists.

The consequence of government regulation and terrorism was the denial of information, specially information vital to their well-being, to the Filipino people. This was achieved not only through the removal from practice or the regulation of the writing of critical journalists. It was also achieved through the celebration of “positive articles”–i.e., articles that demonstrated the supposed vitality and validity of media-government “partnership” and media’s adherence to the “purposive” tenets of “developmental communication.”

Aside from giving developmental communication a bad name, this situation made the government press release–emanating from the Ministry of Information with its 200 million-peso budget–and the statements of civilian officials and the military the major sources of news about government. With only a few exceptions this reliance on government issuance killed enterprise and most certainly investigative journalism, and encouraged the plodding mediocrity that the death of journalistic enterprise inevitably develops.

Thus did the spectacular growth of the country’s international debt from less than a billion dollars when Marcos was reelected in 1969 to 30 billion dollars by the time he was overthrown in 1986 remain a secret to most Filipinos until they could no longer do anything about it. The design and other problems, including its exorbitant cost to them, of the Bataan Nuclear Plant remained unknown to most Filipinos until EDSA. The gross violations of human rights–the torture, the bombing of entire villages, the massacres, the summary executions, the rapes, the hamletting of communities suspected of harboring guerillas–continued without the knowledge, even today, of millions of Filipinos.

And thus has the entire martial law period remained unknown and unappreciated not only by a new generation, but even by millions of people who, while living through it, have never quite understood it.

Skepticism of the government-approved crony press over its glowing reports on the economy, government and society in general could not but develop among the middle class. There was after all the reality to compare with what was being reported in the crony press. This led to, among others, the growth credibility of foreign information sources–including Penthouse and Cosmopolitan, and even Time magazine, which in 1969 had published a cover story on how Marcos was going to save Filipinos from themselves. (Penthouse had a section called “Asshole of the Month,” with an appropriate drawing of a horse’s backside. It awarded Ferdinand Marcos this distinction in one of its issues. Cosmopolitan had a story on the world’s wealthiest women, and–in tribute–put Mrs. Marcos in the same company as Queen Elizabeth and Elizabeth Taylor in terms of net worth.)

This credibility was evident in the way copies of these publications’ articles were clandestinely circulated, giving rise to what became known as Xerox journalism. Certainly this was at the deserved expense of the crony newspapers, one of which, the day after Ninoy Aquino’s funeral in 1983, published a front page story about a man struck by lightning during a thunderstorm that day, and only a small photograph of the funeral cortege on page 10. But the reinforcement of trust in foreign publications–if it comes from a foreign publication it must be true–the agendas of which do not necessarily coincide with Filipino interests, certainly amounted to uncritical acceptance of their reports.

The martial law experience thus demonstrated several truths about media and the circumstances that make them either instruments of liberation or of oppression.

Second, martial law left a legacy of secrecy that up to now, 27 years later, is still very much in government, as evidenced by the press’ still limited access to information which government sources claim to be classified (Some University of the Philippines Journalism 101 students, for example, are still told by desk sergeants that the police blotter is “classified”. So are data on homeless Filipinos, as a student doing an investigative report on the matter found). This has made the investigative report, in a country where so much still remains hidden from the public, the most important journalistic form in our time.

Third, the police and the military having learned that the law has no meaning beyond their willingness to enforce it, violence and lawlessness have become the norm rather than the exception in much of Philippine society–perpetrated mostly by “peace officers” and military men themselves. Against recalcitrant media, violence as a legacy of martial law remains a state option that requires no formal declaration of authoritarian rule to use–and that is why Inquirer publisher Isagani Yambot goes around with a bodyguard nowadays.

Fourth, corruption in media flourishes as another legacy of the martial law period, during which government officials raised the levels of corruption to unprecedented heights, offering journalists the though choice between accepting bags of money as a reward for writing favorable stories, or writing unfavorable ones and finding themselves in prison and in the tender mercies of the torturers of ISAFP (the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines) and C-2 (Constabulary intelligence).

Yet these legacies are mostly unremarked upon, perhaps because there is no culture of continuity in Philippine society through which the lessons learned by previous generations is transmitted to the next. Despite efforts such as this conference, every generation has had to start from zero all over again, past generations including my own having failed to reproduce their experience for the benefit of those who will come after them.

It has often been said that there has been no serious effort at an accounting on the part of the governments that succeeded the Marcos dictatorship. No Truth Commission has been created, no special courts to look into the monumental crimes committed during the Marcos reign of terror. Part of the reason is the lack of any sustained public clamor for an accounting. But there is also the involvement of certain personalities of the political elite such as Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada–among dozens of others–in the Marcos government.

I fear that one of the enduring legacies of martial law is its own repeatability. Authoritarian rule, including the undeclared kind, can happen again because too many Filipinos still don’t know what happened from 1972 to 1986, let alone why it happened. About the martial law period they have nothing to remember, and they wont know it when they see it.

(Delivered at the “Memory, Truth-telling and the Pursuit of Justice: A Conference on the Legacies of the Marcos Dictatorship” held 20-22 September 1999 at the Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City.)

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