Forty-two years have passed since Ferdinand Marcos placed the entire country under martial law on September 23, 1972 (he signed Presidential Proclamation 1081 on September 21, implementing it only two days later). But some Filipinos still argue that things were better during the dictatorship, while others recall the way the regime ruined countless lives and inflicted on Philippine society its dark legacies of human rights violations, abuse of power, corruption and bad governance.

This year, both that practically endless debate and the Marcos family’s decades-long campaign to have the late dictator buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes’ Cemetery) marked the 42nd anniversary of Proclamation 1081. Support for the latter is often linked to the belief that the Marcos regime ushered in a period of peace and prosperity — or that, at the very least, Marcos was an authentic hero deserving the honor.

Both indicate a national failure to put closure to that sorry, 14-year episode. The debate continues over both Marcos’ place in history and the cost of authoritarian rule because there has been no serious attempt during the 28 years since the regime was overthrown to gather and evaluate the vast amount of information in government archives and the memories of its victims that could finally provide the people an authoritative account of what really happened.

And yet the country can only “move on,” past the vice-versus-virtue debate that inevitably ensues every September, if such a closure has taken place — and everyone has understood the martial law period enough to realize that it must never happen again.

The administrations that succeeded that of Marcos did not create any means to finally establish what actually happened through a truth commission in the manner of those created in other countries that emerged from dictatorship and repression such as Chile and Argentina.

Those administrations’ indifference and even hostility to that need has been blamed for most Filipinos’ inability to comprehend the dictatorship’s human cost and the extent to which it set back the country’s democratization and social, cultural and political development.

The blame can also be laid at the doors of those who lived through the period, but failed to convey its meaning to their own sons and daughters. Even more fundamentally, the end of martial law did not end the rule of some of the very individuals who helped put it in place, and who could not allow the exposure of their role in it. But as the institution charged with providing the citizenry the information it needs to make sense of events whether past or present, the media also have a share of the responsibility.

Much of the media — the radio and TV stations as well as broadsheets — do commemorate the declaration of martial rule by airing and presenting special reports, feature stories, interviews and other pieces every September.

A report by GMA News TV this year, for example, looked into how media organizations were shut down, and some publishers, editors, columnists, broadcasters and reporters arrested upon the proclamation of martial law.

A news feature on the martial law period over radio noted, among other anomalies, that the major supporters of martial rule included now Senator Juan Ponce-Enrile and former President Fidel V. Ramos.

In print, among the commemorative pieces were entire series on the experiences of martial law victims as well as accounts of the state of the country in 1972, and what it felt like for the generation that grew into adulthood during that period to live under a dictatorship.

Most of these reports, interviews, and feature stories carried the same message: the imperative for Filipinos to never again allow the imposition of authoritarian rule. But some articles that can only be described as trivial and mindless also made it to the pages of the broadsheets, together with interviews with college students who, by claiming that the Ferdinand Marcos regime did the country some if not a lot of good, displayed their appalling ignorance of the period.

The same trivialization and ignorance has been evident for years not only among the young but even among older Filipinos, judging from their issuances in the old media and even in the new. In such social media sites as Facebook and Twitter, the same moral agnosticism and intellectual vacuity approach epidemic proportions every September.

Ignored, forgotten or never quite learned, much less understood, is how the martial law period not only savaged the Bill of Rights, but also established a pattern of abuse and repression from which the country still has to recover, and decimated the ranks of an entire generation of the country’s best and brightest sons and daughters.

Missing among the specials, feature stories and other accounts commemorating the declaration of martial law are analytical pieces on the causes and forces behind the declaration, the fourteen years of repression that followed, and their consequences.

The default implies acceptance of the conventional explanation for the country’s descent into dictatorship — that it was merely due to the ambition and corruption of one man, his wife, and his cronies — and that without a Ferdinand Marcos the dictatorship would not have happened. Ignored are the authoritarian roots of the political system, whose democratic façade concealed the fundamental reality that the handful of families that for decades have been using their monopoly over political power to defend and enhance their interests and those of their foreign patrons had, and still have, a critical stake in keeping the system intact.

Maintaining the illusion of democratic rule served their purposes so long as it was not challenged. But in the late 1960s, the social unrest consequent to the inequality that has long characterized Philippine society reached one of its critical points, developing into a wide-ranging, multi-sectoral demand for social change and the democratization of political power.

The result was a political crisis among the elite to which their “solution” was open authoritarian rule, with Marcos — whose personal ambitions and class interests coincided with those of the ruling families and their foreign patrons — acting in their behalf.

Looking at the martial law period as the logical consequence of the country’s elite-driven political structure is indispensable to understanding why authoritarian rule happened — and, what’s even more crucial, why it can still happen. The media should continue to convey to their readers, viewers and listeners the necessity of never again allowing authoritarian rule. But of even more importance is the need for everyone to monitor the political system that has remained essentially the same despite the 42 years that have passed since Proclamation 1081, and for the education of present and future generations on the need to democratize it.

The only way to end the fruitless debate over martial law is to understand it. In the absence of an official and true account of the martial law period, and in the context of either the ignorance or reluctance of the generation that went through it to transmit what they know to the generations that came after them, among the institutions vital to mass realization of that imperative is the media. Unfortunately, despite their obvious efforts at relevance every September, the media have yet to provide that vital service.

First published in BusinessWorld.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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