POSTSCRIPT / February 21, 1999 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Will Estrada’s scare tactics work on media?

THE libel suit that President Estrada threatened to file against the Manila Times might as well be a class suit in reverse. It is actually aimed at the press in general.

All newspapers are put on notice that Mr. Estrada will fight back with the full force of the presidency if any newspaper publishes stories or comments severely criticizing him. In whatever guise it is packaged, this is intimidation.

That Mr. Estrada intends to wield the power and influence of his Office to destroy his critics became clearer when he flaunted the presidency in his older quarrel with former Chairman Manuel Morato of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office.

Mr. Estrada bragged that now that he is president, he is assured of Morato’s conviction in the libel suit filed against him by Mr. Estrada when he was still Vice President.

* * *

AFTER threatening the Times with libel charges and taking a swipe at its owner John Gokongwei (but absolving him two days later), President Estrada next trained his guns on the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

He told the Prietos and Rufinos, who control the Inquirer, to make a full and detailed declaration of their assets and business interests so the reading public would know how to evaluate the paper’s stand on public issues.

With the Times and the Inquirer held up as samples – much in the same way that rapist Leo Echagaray was made a sample with his execution—the threat has been delivered.

The President’s flareup in the Times case was triggered by that paper’s critical report on a government contract for a P17-billion hydroelectric power project. The report described Mr. Estrada as the “unwitting godfather” of the questioned deal.

In the Inquirer case, the last straw that broke the President’s back was that paper’s attacks on the administration plan to require plain taxpayers, in addition to government personnel, to file Statements of Assets and Liabilities on top of their income tax returns.

* * *

THESE moves of Mr. Estrada to scare the press and other critics with the panoply of presidential powers call to mind the systematic emasculation of the press under Marcos’ martial rule.

Even the Marcos machine, however, soon had to give way to less rigid media management as pressure, including from the world press, was consistently brought to bear on his dictatorship.

When the dictator imposed martial rule in 1972, newspapers were padlocked for allegedly being instruments of the old oligarchy, if not the communist insurgency. With some notable exceptions, such as the Manila Times and the Manila Chronicle, the newspapers were reopened one by one as their owners adapted to the repressive regime.

For tighter state control, newspaper copy, including simple announcements, had to be cleared with Malacañang before publication. Press materials awaiting clearance piled up, resulting in king-size headaches among the censors and big delays in putting daily newspapers to bed.

* * *

THE centralized clearing was obviously not acceptable. A compromise was attempted by assigning censors to sit with the editorial desk of each newspaper to pass upon materials on the spot. This was supposed to speed up processing.

While some of the in-house censors had some media background, many of them were not prepared for the job thrust upon them as super-editors working side by side with seasoned editors.

Soon enough, the new setup was found to be utterly unsatisfactory. There was relief all around when the censors were mercifully pulled out.

* * *

WHILE the Palace censors were working out their respective modus vivendi with the local editors, another power bloc emerged from among senior reporters covering Malacañang.

This influential clique was headed by reporter Primitivo Mijares of the then Daily Express who bragged of being able to walk into the bedroom of then President Marcos and discuss things.

Insiders told stories of Mijares sometimes coming out of the President’s study and dumping on then Information Minister Francisco Tatad the “stories for the day” that the President had discussed with Mijares instead of Tatad.

The story may sound apocryphal, but insiders relate how Mijares and his boys also decided what “official results” to report during the notorious Marcos referendums. Taking figures from thin air, they would manufacture poll results and proceed to report them as official.

* * *

TO further tighten its lucrative lock on media, the Mijares clique proceeded to control the National Press Club, the organization of working newspapermen.

Much like Marcos installing himself as president for life, Mijares grabbed the NPC presidency and held over when his term expired. Using the club as a new power base, Mijares had Mr. Marcos create the Media Advisory Council to be run by him.

The council became the new licensing authority not only for newspapers and other media but also for other businesses related to printing. With its licensing powers, MAC emerged as the top media regulatory body with powers to padlock any establishment that refused to cooperate.

Even the printing of calendars had to be cleared and mimeographing machines registered with Mijares’ office. Money kept pouring in in the form of fees and accommodations.

As predicted by Mijares’ own peers in the press, the MAC was soon hobbled by corruption, discredited and abolished.

* * *

WITH the Mijares group out, the Bureau of Standards for Mass Media under the information ministry of Tatad emerged as an oversight committee of sorts.

Under Director Andres Cristobal Cruz, the bureau pushed the idea of self-regulation. It convened the various print and broadcast media so they could organize and lay down their own trade rules.

The BSMM served as facilitator and, in cases of violations, enforcer by persuasion. (Since martial rule was still on, “persuasion” was persuasive enough in most cases.)

The elbowroom gained by media from the initial centralized clearing with Malacañang to the benign supervision by the BSMM was considerable.

* * *

THE easing of restrictions toward self-regulation was actually the result of a confluence of initiatives in and out of government.

Tatad himself wanted more leeway for the press, but his thoughts collided at times with powerful figures in the Palace with martial and sometimes commercial inclinations. Also, many respected publishers and editors continued to push for liberalization whenever the chance presented itself.

Government soon let go. Malacañang just made sure that the newspapers and radio-TV stations were in “safe hands.” The term referred to executives and editors who were more or less friendly with Malacañang.

These media executives were expected to ensure that their newspapers or broadcast stations did not rock the boat. They were given reasonable leeway, but they were made responsible for their respective domains. They were also plied with incentives for good behavior.

This was the self-policing media setup in place when Mr. Marcos finally fled from the Palace 13 years ago this month on a US helicopter on the first leg of his one-way trip to a Hawaiian exile.

Fast-forwarding to the present, what’s President Estrada’s media policy, aside from intimidation?

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 21, 1999)

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