POSTSCRIPT / February 23, 1999 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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An intimidated press is useless to Estrada

A FREE press is a valuable recourse of a president struggling to work around a cordon sanitaire. A fawning press is as bad as, if not worse than, a chorus of sycophants singing hosannas to a leader’s alleged virtues.

Even within the supposed safety of the Palace, the president faces the peril of being surrounded by people bearing false reports, bum advice and personal agenda.

Theoretically, that should not be much of a problem, since the president can always read the morning papers and, there, find the unvarnished truth. Or at least listen to the other side.

Therein lies the value of a free press to a president in danger of being overwhelmed by his own ego, or captured by scheming alter egos.

* * *

ONE fatal error of the late Ferdinand Marcos was his muzzling the press. This he did by various means, such as by making cronies of media owners, by coopting editors and senior staff through bribery and flattery, or by forcing them to toe the line by naked intimidation.

The dictator unwittingly cut himself off an essential source of reliable information when he clamped down on the press and demanded that it published only favorable reports.

Perch on his throne of bayonets, Mr. Marcos lost touch with reality. Detached from a reliable database that he could have culled from a daily reading of the legitimate press, he stumbled into many errors of judgment.

* * *

THIS is one lesson that President Estrada and his media handlers may want to mull over as the nation recalls the EDSA Miracle of February 1986.

It is normal, and healthy, for Mr. Estrada to chafe under press scrutiny. That he occasionally blows his top is even a good release.

A critical press is a useful, in fact vital, adjunct of a democracy, where informed public opinion serves as basis for official decisions. When in doubt, all a president has to do is listen to the people and he will never go wrong.

That presupposes, however, that the president gets a correct reading of public opinion. That presupposes also – as we are putting forward in this piece – that genuine public opinion is faithfully echoed by the press.

Obviously, then, it is very important that the press remains true, unfettered and competent. Otherwise, it cannot perform as the living link between people and government.

That’s one of the reasons why we are a bit concerned over recent attempts of President Estrada to intimidate some key members of the press that he has failed to recruit into the Erap chorus line.

* * *

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

To ensure tight state control, however, every bit of newspaper copy, including simple announcements, had to be cleared with Malacañang before publication. Editors who strayed from the official line were called in for some reminding.

As expected, 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 of press materials was obviously not acceptable, even to the overburdened Malacañang censors some of whom had never worked at a news desk before.

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.

“Let him be,” one senior editor once told the desk referring to the censor sent to preside over them, “He might learn a few things about newspapering by just sitting with us.”

Soon enough, the new setup was found 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 whose clubhouse sits near the south approach of Jones bridge.

Much like Marcos installing himself as president for life, Mijares grabbed the NPC presidency and held over when their terms 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 the result of a confluence of various 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 in their meetings with media managers of government.

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, in the name of press freedom, 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 23, 1999)

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