Press freedom
- Boo Chanco () - February 1, 2008 - 12:00am

History does not really repeat itself. What we get is a variation on a theme. That’s why events captured in newspaper headlines today often give us a sense of déjà vu. And today, it seems a little more eerie than usual.

Early this week, 70 journalists from various news organizations made an urgent plea to the Supreme Court to prohibit the government from muzzling press freedom through veiled or open threats of arrest and criminal prosecution. Warning that democracy in the Philippines was imperiled, the journalists launched a series of legal actions after dozens of them were arrested by the police on Nov. 29 last year while they were covering the Peninsula Hotel siege in Makati City. They also filed a class action suit seeking damages of P10 million from government, police and military officials for press freedom violations.

ABS-CBN’s News and Current Affairs head Maria Ressa, one of the petitioners, said: “Ultimately, the decision that will be handed by our courts will influence the future of democracy in our country. We know that if we do nothing, we help destroy press freedom. That is why we came to the Supreme Court today.”

“This case is being watched all over the world,” said Melinda Quintos de Jesus, CMFR executive director. The journalists said their petition was “compelling” because the government respondents had been “using the strong arm of the law to censor, oppress and intimidate the press, and will continue to do so unless this Court intervenes and stops them.”

The local journalists are not just being paranoid either. The rating of the Philippines’ has just been downgraded from “free” to “partly free” by US-based Freedom House. It also disqualified the Philippines from the list of “electoral democracies.”

A highly influential American academic journal has also published a stinging rebuke of Ate Glue, accusing her of “sinking Asia’s oldest democracy” into “a morass of corruption and scandal.”

“Arroyo continues to undermine the country’s democratic institutions in order to remain in power,” wrote political science Prof. Paul D. Hutchcroft of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in an analysis that came out in the January 2008 issue of the “Journal of Democracy.” Published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, the “Journal of Democracy” is a project of the International Forum for Democratic Studies and the National Endowment for Democracy.

Why do all these events have such a familiar ring?

Probably, it is because the threats to press freedom had always been there, even in the best of times. And local journalists have always defended their right to publish and speak freely.

I was just reading a freshly published book that gave a compelling story of the often shaky relationship between press and government under the Philippine democratic set-up. That’s why to me, today’s headlines merely reiterates that press freedom can never be taken for granted… it must always be defended.

The book that all students of government and media must read is entitled The Power and the Glory. Written by Raul Rodrigo, it narrates the story of The Manila Chronicle and its feisty and controversial publisher, the late industrialist Don Eugenio H. Lopez. Known more for his business acumen, Don Eugenio had always had a strong inclination towards journalism. Even before he bought control of the Chronicle, he published El Tiempo, a daily newspaper in Iloilo founded by his assassinated father.

Don Eugenio admired William Randolph Hearst and Henry Luce, Rodrigo writes in Phoenix, an earlier book on the Lopezes, and that the Lopez patriarch believed in having a publication that reflected the publisher’s personality, that fought for his principles and waged his crusades. In his case, he made his newspaper a crusader for good and honest governance. It is his belief that “a free press is the essence of democracy.”

For the Chronicle, this is what he had to say: “In this paper I have waged the biggest battles of my life, fighting against presidents, senate presidents, political moguls and vested interests.  And as for who won, it is not for me to say… I am proud to say that the Manila Chronicle has the reputation of integrity…”

In the end, he gave up his business empire and saw his son imprisoned at the hands of the Marcos dictatorship. The relentless attacks of the Chronicle, fearlessly exposing corruption at the highest levels of government, were too much for the dictator to bear.

It all began in Iloilo, and one of the first crusades of Don Eugenio and his paper was against illegal gambling — jueteng — and the corruption of local officials involved in it (as you see, history does not repeat itself… things just stay the same). Expose after expose alleged that top officials including then Iloilo Governor Mariano Arroyo were into the illegal numbers game. Governor Arroyo was the most powerful man in the province and was the brother of a Nationalista senator who was a good friend of soon to be President Quezon.

The expose led to a libel charge being filed against Don Eugenio, a case that was eventually dismissed. Governor Arroyo, on the other hand, was eventually relieved of his position by American Governor General Dwight F. Davis after an investigation. The stunning victory for Don Eugenio, then not yet even 30 years old, set the pattern for his crusading with The Manila Chronicle.

In The Power and the Glory: the story of the Manila Chronicle 1945-98, author Raul Rodrigo tells “a classic case of the intersection of media power and political power in the Philippines.” He weaves together the three stories of a nation, a newspaper and its staff, and the family that oversaw the paper during utterly tumultuous, if momentous episodes in Philippine history.

The Chronicle saga contained great friendships and at times intense interpersonal conflict; its reporters shared moments of high drama as well as low comedy. They were bound together by hard work, a quest for excellence and the shared experience of recording a – and sometimes influencing – Philippine history in the making.

During its two incarnations under the aegis of the Lopez family (1945-72 and 1986-93), the Manila Chronicle assembled some of the best journalistic talent ever gathered in a Filipino newsroom. The Chronicle was once home to all four Filipino Ramon Magsaysay awardees for journalism and many of the biggest names in the industry, including all four Filipino Ramon Magsaysay awardees for Journalism: Zac Sarian (1974), Raul Locsin (1999), Sheila Coronel (2003), and Eggie Apostol (2006).

In the book’s foreword, Lopez Group chairman Oscar M. Lopez calls the Chronicle “a newspaper to be proud of”, recalling its crucial role in national history. “For those who knew the paper, this book is a chance to relive what was lost. For the younger generation, this book is a chance to experience what a great newspaper was like — and to see what it took to put such a paper to bed, night after night. Here you can meet the many colorful characters of the paper and see how they created a combustible combination of talents and personalities that made our newsroom so vibrant, challenging, and fun,” says Lopez.

The book will be launched in a reunion of former Chronicle staffers next Friday. Mayor Sonny Belmonte, who joined the Chronicle as a 17-year old police reporter, will lead its alumni in recalling their glory days.

Oh yes… I guess you want to know if that Governor Arroyo is related to you-know-who. From my understanding, he is… the brother of the original Jose Pidal Arroyo. That made me wonder how Don Eugenio and the Chronicle would have covered today’s news… with an Arroyo always under suspicion (e.g. ZTE, etc) and a Macapagal flirting with dictatorial powers. As author Rodrigo puts it when I thought aloud about it, “It would have been painfully familiar with him.”

It must be a relief to you-know-who that both Don Eugenio and The Manila Chronicle are dead.

Pinoy joke

Forwarded by reader Zenaida Duque in the light of a news report about a cop arrested after a wild chase in the company of a cell phone snatcher.

Judge: Isa ka palang pusher, kidnapper, gun for hire, swindler at bugaw! Wala ka bang matinong hanapbuhay?

Accused: Meron po. Pulis po ako.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com

CHRONICLE DON EUGENIO MANILA CHRONICLE PLACE
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