Muzzle Off, Philippine Press Can Now Roar

Sheila S. Coronel is a reporter for the Manila Times.

It is a bit disorienting still to find after three days of carnival rebellion that the order of things here, for 20 years dictatorially designated and defined, has been suddenly reversed. It is exhilarating, of course, though still a little jolting--this absence of the man who for two decades was the self-decreed dominant presence.

No longer is the television screen dominated by his imperious posturing, nor the newspapers filled by uniform press releases from the barricaded palace. No longer stifled by threats or directives, no longer seen as outlets of Marcos propaganda, the Philippine media are suddenly free.

It is a freedom to which they are obviously unaccustomed. The once-controlled papers remain bland, their editors and writers apparently not yet recovered from years of timidity. On the other hand, the newly liberated government television station, which fell into the hands of the rebels on the second day of the uprising, is broadcasting with a vengeance, cramming the public with all the things never before possible on Philippine television.

Until a month ago, I was for several years a magazine writer for a publishing network owned by a businessman with very close links to the Marcos family. The kind of journalism that we practiced was variously labeled as "brinkmanship journalism" or "guerrilla journalism." It was basically a cat-and-mouse game: putting out articles critical of the government when the political climate was relaxed, and retreating into silence and timidity when it was otherwise.

Many times it was also bazaar journalism: haggling with editors and publishers for the retention of every word, every inch of critical copy. It was also a dangerous brand of journalism, the kind that got editors and writers fired, arrested, sued for libel or subversion and, in the rural wilderness ruled by provincial warlords, even killed. From 1979 to 1985 we counted 22 murdered newsmen, mostly in the provinces.

For the most part, however, the old regime kept the press muzzled through publishers who were either relatives or close associates of Marcos. Salaries were kept low so that journalists were vulnerable to temptation by corrupt government officials who gave them monthly retainers in exchange for their silence and acquiescence. News management by the government's Office of Media Affairs was the norm. Every day, editors of the so-called crony papers got phone calls from that office, or from Ferdinand Marcos himself, and were given instructions concerning the treatment of stories, especially those that came from the palace. Even photographs were censored. Only those that were flattering to Marcos and his wife were printed. In the groundswell of protest that followed the Aquino assassination, no crowd shots were allowed, and in the magazine that I worked for we were banned for weeks from writing about the event. A boycott of the crony media was launched, and we became the targets of public ire.

This disaffection with the Marcos-controlled press gave rise to what became known as the alternative newspapers, owned by publishers with no links to the regime and patronized by an increasingly politicized public. Yet in the crony papers, too, journalists were emboldened by the turn of events. For the media as for the country, the murder of Benigno Aquino was the turning point.

Then came the elections. In the controlled papers the screws of censorship were tightened. Opposition stories were relegated to below the fold, if they made it to the front page at all, and in the magazine we were again banned from writing political articles.

Sapped of our sanity and energies, many of us from the controlled papers joined the Manila Times, closed down by the Marcos regime when martial law was declared in 1972 but which reopened shortly before the election. Its revival was, you could say, the dying wish of an old man, Ramon Roces, 86, the Times' publisher and founder.

Some of our colleagues thought it quixotic that we should give up our secure jobs for a paper that could be closed at any time. But, for the first time ever, I felt that I was working for a real newspaper. No more journalistic acrobatics were required, no more elaborate metaphors to cushion the blow of stark truths. Many of us from the controlled papers found that we had to keep repeating to ourselves, "We can write about this now. There is no more censorship now."

Now that Marcos has fallen and the media have been unmuzzled, we must guard against the tendency to be uncritical of the new administration. The press must resist the temptation to indulge in a love affair with the new government and armed forces. There are still many things wrong with our society.

Perhaps now, more than ever, vigilance is required.

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