ON MARCH 19 the Lopez Museum and Library mounted a forum called “Newsroom Shutdown.” The audience comprised mostly millennials who had come to listen to stories of press censorship and other atrocities in Ferdinand Marcos’ martial law regime, the darkest years of the nation’s recent past that had come to pass well before they were born.
I was one of the three storytellers: Pete Lacaba could not be stopped even after being put to torture during his two years of detention; and Ceres Doyo (now a columnist of this paper) took the fight to the dictator continuously, and suffered harassment continuously; it was I in fact who had it the easiest, although I have my own firsthand stories to tell, not to mention impressions too fearsome to keep to myself. I felt therefore only too anxious to do my part.
Following is an adaptation from my talk, starting off on the eve of martial law (which caught me at The Manila Chronicle) and leading to the present to raise the question: Are we really done with Marcos?
A thief in the night
Friday is done, and the boys of the press can’t wait to begin making a night of it. Saturday and Sunday being lean news days, materials have been readied for the slack; weekend work won’t begin until mid-afternoon or even later.
That is if everything goes normal.
Nothing in fact is going normal—nothing at all. No sooner have the newspapers gone to bed than the thief in the night strikes and steals freedom wholesale: Ferdinand Marcos imposes martial law and deploys the first weapons of dictatorship—roundup, checkpoints, censorship.
Censorship impacts furthest and widest. A nation of 39 million awakes to a day without newspapers, a day of soundless and pictureless television, a day of voiceless radio. Radio plays some music, but music of the funereal sort, doubtless meant to heighten the sense of graveness in the air.
Troops have descended on the media to ensure that no newspaper copy gets out in the streets and no voice gets out on the airwaves. Censorship works as a first salvo of artillery that intimidates and softens the target.
In time, media voices are heard again, but only as mouthpieces. Any voice that strays out of line is again silenced, its possessor punished.
As it happened, the first of my only two, and small, collisions with the regime stemmed precisely from a piece about its brand of censorship. I had written that the only types of news published in martial-ruled Manila were “positive news—that is, news that makes everybody happy—and passive news—news that makes nobody unhappy.”
The piece, given lead play in the U.K. Press Gazette, the British publication on the trade, caught the notice of our dutiful ambassador to the Court of St. James’, and earned me an invitation to a tutorial bullying overnight on patriotic journalism.
My second case happened seven or eight years later, for a piece of group journalism in which my role was only to put it together—“do the wrap-up,” as we say in the newspaper business. It was the story of Ninoy Aquino’s murder that was published within a few hours of it in an extra edition of a popular tabloid, a story passed upon by the resident censor himself, the editor-in-chief, possibly succumbing at the moment to some attack of professional guilt. The following day I floated around the office desk-less, and eventually drifted off outside jobless.
In due course, indignation builds up until finally dictatorship meets its match in the people’s exploding desire to be free and be heard. In our case it took 14 years.
Where are we now?
Nothing actually was special about Marcos’ censorship—it was standard. Censorship can scarcely be improved on; it works perfectly enough as it is. Nothing either was special about his dictatorship—it was standard, too, murderous and covetous; if anything, it carried those qualities to extreme. Anyway, we’re supposed to be rid of all that.
But are we really? Indeed, I wonder whether we have not worked censorship into our systems and done so to the advantage of the very characters that gave us censorship. For how explain such forebodings of a Marcos revival as we’ve been observing since too early on?
A mere six years after Edsa, the Marcos family was back from exile, unpunished, unrepentant. Indeed, it has reinstalled itself in positions of power, privilege and patronage. It’s there lolling in loot and shamelessly extolling its patriarch, whose body lies preserved for the patently undeserved honor of a state funeral, which could come in time if the press, in what looks like a self-censorship reflex, persists in leaving the Marcoses alone.
The Marcos cause in fact is openly promoted by four of the five presidential candidates: Binay, Duterte, and Poe have declared themselves in favor of the state funeral, although Poe seems now having second thoughts; in a count on the issue taken in the second, and latest, round of presidential debates, she kept her hands unraised to signify a quiet vote of nay, siding this time with the consistent nay-voter Roxas. Defensor-Santiago was absent, but, with Marcos Jr. as her vice-presidential mate, need she yet be asked?
If Binay, Duterte and Defensor-Santiago don’t score points on my patch of earth, do they in heaven? After all, it’s Easter Sunday, the culmination of the precise Christian season in which every excuse is made available for being mindlessly merciful, for being over-forgiving.