Journalism is such a radical thing

June 24, 2024

By Raymund Villanueva

Journalism in the Philippines (and in much of the world) is often criticized for being the voice of the status quo—deservedly so for the most part. A review of today’s commercial television and radio’s primetime news show that programs allocate more time on advertisement and fluff stories such as showbiz and commercial product launches.

Radio is even worse when supposed news reports are polluted with commercial endorsements in the middle of the news reports themselves. Less time is given to reports of consequence to the people.

Their supposed hard news reports are also dominated by so-called official news sources, which mean government and business. Some reports use common folk as preliminary sources but they are presented as mere victims, “mga walang magagawa.”

The same is true with the broadsheets’ news sections that get worse when we flip to other sections such as sports, business, shipping, motoring and so on. It gets more elitist with their tourism, culture and literary and other sections.

Commercial online media is not better. Not only do advertisements appear in the middle of texts but entire outfits are made into advertising platforms for products and services. This is the inevitable result when journalism is no longer public service but a business; its existence and cause of being is financial and influence profiteering.

But despite this reality, journalism in the Philippines can be radical. It had been such, particularly when called for by the times. And today, the times callln for radical journalism and radical news consumption.

Radical youth, radical journalism

Jose Rizal, Marcelo H. del Pilar, Graciano Lopez y Jaena, Mariano Ponce and others began writing and publishing during their youth. The publication La Solidaridad was published when they were still students. This is similar with Kalayaan who had the young Emilio Jacinto as its editor. The First Propaganda Movement helped pave the way for the revolution against Spanish colonization that made us ever so briefly a republic, Asia’s first.

The founding president of the College Editors’ Guild of the Philippines (CEGP), Wenceslao Vinzons, who is also recognized as the “father of student activism in the Philippines, carried on the ideals he learned as Philippine Collegian editor-in-chief and University of the Philippines student council chairperson. His idealism led him to be among the first to organize guerilla units in Bicol at the outbreak of the inter-imperialist Second World War, leading attacks against the Japanese invaders, for which he sacrificed his life.

The campus press helped expose and oppose what was then an emerging Marcos dictatorship in the late 1960s. The likes of The Philippine Collegian, The Bedan, The Guidon and other student publications, edited and staffed by brave student journalists who published and serialized articles by Renato Constantino, Jose Maria Sison, Claro M. Recto and other patriotic writers, helped expose Marcos, US imperialism, and the evils they spawned on our people. They were so effective that Marcos shut them down, along with other media outfits critical of his anti-people policies when martial law was declared in 1972.

The youth that founded Kabataang Makabayan (KM) on November 30, 1964 published immediately its newsletter Kalayaan— named after Katipunan’s newsletter. Shortly before martial law’s declaration, on June 1971, KM also published the first issue of Kalayaan International. The Central Intelligence Agency said the publication was being read by intellectuals in San Francisco, California by September of that year.

The radical youth that went on to re-establish the Communist Party of the Philippines, also founded Ang Bayan. Both publications and their youthful writers who revived the revolutionary underground press tradition in the Philippines were instrumental in the long struggle and victory against martial rule in the country.

On February 1–9, 1971, the Diliman Commune uprising of UP students, faculty and staff, and residents happened. They took over DZUP that became for some days a radical pirate radio.

When Marcos was forced to lift martial law and allow the reestablishment of student newspapers, the campus press picked up from where it left off and contributed to the eventual ouster of the dictator in 1986. They were integral parts of what history now calls in various names, including The Second Propaganda Movement or the mosquito press, freedom fighters and icons of democracy.

At turn of the millenium, the campus press was active in exposing the corrupt and immoral regime of Pres. Joseph Estrada. Many special issues by CEGP member-student publications were, in fact, published and distributed during the EDSA II uprising.

And so, in several momentous events in our country’s history, the campus press and its youthful journalists were radical and doing their job the way journalism should.

When even the commercial press is forced to be radical

After World War II, commercial newspapers were revived and even more were established. While most were owned by businesses, there were many hard-nosed journalists who struggled to remain independent from their owners’ interests and so published many radical articles.

Newspapers such as the Manila Chronicle and The Manila Times as well as others were at loggerheads with Marcos. In the tumult of the 60s to early 70s, publications such as the Philippines Free Press led the trend in news reporting that focused on government administration and politicians. The press earned its reputation as the freest in Asia until 1972.

Ferdinand Marcos Sr. declared Martial Law in September 1972 through Proclamation 1081. He also issued Letter of Instruction No. 1 (Series 1972) that prevented “the use of privately-owned newspapers, magazines, radio and television facilities and all other media of communications, for propaganda purposes against the government and its duly-constituted authorities.” The immediate media shutdown that followed included seven major dailies, one Filipino daily, three Filipino dailies, one Spanish daily, four Chinese dailies, 66 community papers, and 11 weekly English magazines. Among the arrested journalists were Max Soliven, Hernando Abaya, Teodoro Locsin Sr., Joaquin Roces, Luis Mauricio, Ernesto Granada, Luis Beltran and Amando Doronila. Journalist Carolina Malay described the situation thus: “The sound of the typewriter then was considered subversive. The people woke up on September 23 to an ominously quiet city. There were no newspapers on the streets. The only sound that came from radio sets was static. Television only had white noise.”

The Alternative, Mosquito and Underground Presses

Malay, Satur Ocampo and other activists put up Balita ng Malayang Pilipinas (BMP) to fill the void. BMP ran news stories and analyses on issues and was all-out anti-dictatorship. When it was founded in April 1973, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines immediately published its newsletter Liberation with the help of veteran journalist Antonio Zumel. It would later publish Liberation International for the global audience. Himagsik, the newspaper of the revolutionary people of Central Luzon, began in 1974. Other regions and revolutionary sectoral groups would have their own newsletters.

From 1974, the alternative press emerged, ushered in by church newsletters. The Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines (AMRSP) started a mimeographed newsletter called Various Reports that reported facts from the countryside and articles from foreign magazines censured by Malacanang. Meant for the religious communities, copies eventually found their way to the public. Sold clandestinely in church and activist circles for one peso, it was later renamed Signs of the Times.

The Philippine Council for Print Media, chaired by Col. Hans Menzi of the Bulletin Group, soon got wind of the underground publication and ordered the AMRSP to cease publication. The AMRSP refused and Col. Rolando Abadilla and Lt. Panfilo Lacson raided its office and confiscated the machines. Its last issue dated November 27 was also confiscated. Lacson was also the commander of the team that arrested Philippine Collegian editor Ditto Sarmiento, who is known for writing the editorial “Kung hindi tayo, sino? Kung hindi ngayon, kailan pa?”

Other church publications such as The Communication of the National Office for Mass Media were closed down. Ang Bandilyo of the Prelature of Malaybalay was closed down in January 1977 for articles critical of the government and the military.

Once the alternative press was effectively shut down, the mosquito press took its place. Its first trial balloon was Jose and Edith Burgos’ We Forum. It was not long since it earned a growing readership. In 1982, the military raided and closed down the publication. Burgos and other reporters and columnists were arrested, charged with subversion and detained at Fort Bonifacio. Upon release, Burgos begun publishing Ang Pahayagang Malaya that hit the streets on January 17, 1983.

After the Ninoy Aquino assassination in August 1983, Jaime Ongpin and the Catholic Church put up the weekly Veritas. When Imee Marcos tried taking over GMA 7 in 1984, the network broke away from the pack of “safe networks” and started interviewing Aquino’s widow Corazon. This signaled the start of the end of the Marcoses’ stranglehold of television.

The magazine Mr. and Ms., published by Eugenia Apostol and edited by Letty Jimenez Magsanoc, also started becoming officially defiant of Marcos by then. In 1983, outraged by the lack of coverage by the mainstream media of the Aquino assassination, the magazine gave it full coverage. These three magazines also fully covered the Agrava Commission hearings of the assassination. On February 4, 1985, Apostol begun publishing a tabloid weekly called the Philippine Weekly Inquirer that became the Philippine Daily Inquirer on December of the same year. In the latter years of the dictatorship, the Philippine News and Features was established that acted as a wire service of pro-people groups. In January 1986, Ramon Roces revived The Manila Times. When the Inquirer headlined “IT’S ALL OVER; MARCOS FLEES!” on February 25, 1986, a new era began for the Philippine press with the perceived revival of press freedom under Corazon Aquino.

It was Radyo Veritas that provided the most extensive coverage of the Benigno Aquino assassination of August 1983. It was on Veritas that then Cardinal Jaime Sin made the appeal for people to gather at EDSA in February 1986 to support Juan Ponce Enrile and Fidel Ramos against Marcos. The station’s facilities and transmitter in Bulacan was seized by the military to stop its broadcast. It was at this time that newscaster June Keithley and Fr. James Reuter, S.J. commandeered DZRJ station and renamed it Radyo Bandido to provide support to the revolt that eventually ousted Marcos.

Newspapering against an immoral regime

Newspapering actually reached new heights during the Joseph Estrada administration with unprecedented sales. Three newspapers competed at the top—Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star and The Manila Bulletin—each claiming to be number one. This actually started when Estrada put pressure on them when he ordered large companies not to place advertisements on the Inquirer. He also filed criminal charges and ordered a tax audit on the Times to force it to close down. On top of this, it was revealed that he had a monthly budget of P2 million (about $40,000) that he used to pay off editors, news anchors, and reporters to ensure that they did not print or air critical reports. This money, the evidence showed, came from payoffs Estrada received from illegal gambling operators.

Publishers struck back, such as Inquirer’s Eugenia Apostol who came out with the tabloid Pinoy Times that started with just 30,000 copies but reached half a million copies as Estrada was being impeached and tried by Congress. Estrada was ousted in January 2001 with the help of the newspapers.

It should be noted that the commercial press does not start uprisings and struggles. It becomes radical when it is under direct attack and when others have already started widespread resistance to social injustices. When the commercial press joins the alternative and revolutionary underground press in resolutely taking the side of the people and change, trouble then befalls the wicked.

The Alternative Press: Revival and continuation of radical journalism

It was at the time of the second People Power Uprising, and helped in great part by the advent of the internet in the Philippines that alternative media groups were established. In quick succession, Bulatlat, Kodao, Pinoy Weekly, and Northern Dispatch were founded that continued with the radical tradition of Philippine journalism. Pinoy Weekly and Northern Dispatch were print; only Pinoy Weekly remains as the sole print/online hybrid media outfit in the Philippines. With the establishment of more alternative media outfits in Central Luzon, National Capital Region, Southern Tagalog, Eastern Visayas, Central Visayas, Negros, Panay, Davao Region and even among Filipino communities abroad, the Altermidya-People’s Alternative Media Network was established that now comprise 35 or so member outfits, both new and old media groups and publishing houses such as the CEGP, Ibon, Aklatang Bayan, Arkibong Bayan, and the like.

It is said that the alternative press is the only worthy successor and torch bearer of the radical tradition in Philippine journalism in that it consistently produces articles and reports that regard the common folk as the primary, official and real source of news and opinion. We eschew the bankrupt notion and insistence that journalism should be neutral—“Walang kinikilingan, walang kinakampihan.” Rather, at the expense of commercial viability and in danger of various forms of attacks from the State and big, bad business, the alternative press persists in telling the stories on and from the ground and that journalism should not dumb down, merely entertain and placate the people so they would not think and dare to stand up for their rights and aspirations. We do not disparage the urban poor occupying empty housing complexes, jeepney drivers who insist on keeping their franchises, farmers who till lands claimed by despotic landlords, workers on strike for just wages and stable jobs. We respect the people’s right to express grievances as they see fit.

This kind of journalism is radical in that it firmly rejects the belief that media should not abet protests and resistance in unjust societies such as ours. We believe we hold the torch passed on to us by our propagandist-heroes. We are here. We exist.

The times call for radical journalism and radical news consumption. An enlightened citizenry relies greatly on accurate and pro-people sources of news and information. And thus our plea: Maging radikal sa pagpili ng inyong binabasa, pinapakinggan at pinapanood. Tumulong tayo sa pagbabago ng lipunang bulok sa pamamagitan ng pagpili sa makabayan, progresibo at radikal na kamulatan. #

Raymund Villanueva is the current national chairperson of the Altermidya Network. The above article is part of his speech at the Conference on Radical Historiography in the Philippines on June 10, 2024. The conference was organized by the Center for Peace, Social Justice and Human Rights Studies and Center for Public Administration and Governance Studies of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP) and Tanggol Kasaysayan.

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