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Press freedom is sticky subject in the Philippines

Despite government pronouncements that democratic rights have been restored in the Philippines, press freedom remains a controversial issue. The question of press freedom -- or the lack of it -- became visible as never before when magazine editor Letty Jimenez- Magsanoc was forced to resign because of a critical account she wrote on the June 16 presidential inauguration ceremonies.

Her report blistered the image-conscious regime of President Ferdinand Marcos enough to prompt Justice Minister Ricardo Puno to threaten both the editor and publisher with seditious intent. Both were warned that the "government is not powerless to protect itself."

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After martial law was lifted in January, there was popular demand for an independent newspaper. But those who had the financial means to start one still held reservations about the government's limit of tolerance.

In the case of the Manila Times, which was the most popular newspaper in the days before martial law, resumption of publication was considered impossible. The paper had been owned by the Roces family, known to be critical of the Marcoses.

According to its publisher, Joaquin Roces, it would require no less than half-a-million pesos (about $62,000) to resume business. There was also no guarantee that Mr. Marcos would not order the seizure of the assets of the publication.

Other interested parties like Herminio Disini, a close Marcos friend, hinted at the possibility of starting another newspaper. But that prospect did not promise anything to journalists critical of President Marcos. In their eyes it was likely to be yet another voice for interests close the government.

With the declaration of martial law in 1972, the press in the Philippines experienced new limits on what could be published. It was free to report about but not against the government of Mr. Marcos.

The press also thought it risky to write critically about the comings and goings of the powerful first lady, Imelda R. Marcos, who is governor of metropolitan Manila and minister of human settlements.

Today three major daily newspapers with a combined circulation of almost 600, 000 copies serve 48 million Filipinos.

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For the most part these papers are owned by friends and relatives of Mr. Marcos.

The magazine Panorama, of which Magsanoc was editor, has more than once been warned, and a few times censored. The Philippine Daily Express, which publishes the official line of the government, is owned by a close Marcos friend, Roberto Benedicto, chairman of the Philippine Sugar Commission.

The Times Journal belongs to Benjamin Romualdez, brother of Mrs. Marcos and currently Philippine ambassador to Saudi Arabia. And the Evening Post is an afternoon paper published by the wife of Mr. Marcos' special presidential assistant, Juan Tuvera. The major morning dailies also publish afternon papers and weekly magazines.

With the closure of all pre-martial law newspapers and the establishment of new ones, the role of the press was reduced to reporting what the government does. Criticisms were permissible only in a cautious way.

Popular demand for "the other side of the story" has been partially met through the proliferation of so-called underground publications. These range from the radical left's "Liberation" and "Ang Bayan" (The Country), official publications of the Communist Party of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front, to church-based newsletters. The latter are published by political detainees of the association of major religious superiors (composed of priests and nuns). They chronicle cases of alleged abuses by the military.

Altogether, there are reportedly no fewer than 30 underground publications today.

Opposition to Mr. Marcos' regime finds expression through this network of forbidden publications. But anyone possessing a copy of one of these is vulnerable to charges of "inciting to rebellion or sedition," and, at worst, subversion, which carries a maximum penalty of death.

Police surveillance and the lack of financial resources oftentimes cause irregular publication. Most of the 117-odd newsletters that surfaced between 1972 and 1979 were either ordered closed or could not sustain operation.

Despite recent cases involving allegations of the use of force, intimidation, and detention against people involved in media work, the clamour fo r press freedom by the working press has intensified.

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