Thursday, June 30. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. would be inaugurated later in the day as the 17th President of the Republic of the Philippines.
This is where the word republic should give us pause in light of recent harassment cases stalking members of the Philippine press. The return of the Marcoses had shattered the once proud claim of history that we are finally free of the conjugal dictatorship. This comeback now threatens to dislodge journalists from the little that is left of their safe spaces.
The clear and present danger staring Filipino journalists in the face is real. The political inquisition has by now included a list of various targets, a new running total added to the 22 journalists who’ve been murdered under outgoing president Rodrigo Duterte, his closure of ABS-CBN Network, and his relentless persecution of Rappler journalists, including Nobel Peace laureate and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa:
· Rappler, Inc. and the revocation of its certificates of incorporation;
· National Security Adviser (NSA) Secretary Hermogenes Esperon Jr.’s red-tagging of news bureaus Bulatlat.com and Pinoy Weekly, and eventual blocking of their websites because “they have actively supported organizations” affiliated with the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front.”
· Columnist Antonio J. Montalvan II’s piece on “editorial guidance” allegedly enforced by the management of news organization, CNN Philippines, saying, that the word strongman is preferred over dictator when referring to the former despot Ferdinand E. Marcos (forgetting that writers and journalists have a whole thesaurus of options to call him);
· The shakeup suffered by Rappler journalist Lian Buan in the hands of Marcos Jr.’s security detail — where they shoved her forcefully against a scaffolding — during the coverage of the 2022 presidential campaign. The incident was caught on video;
· Carlos Conde, Asia Division Senior Researcher of Human Rights Watch’s report on another incident of harassment, this time on a foreign journalist;
· The National Telecommunications Commission’s attempt to overstep its bounds by issuing the memorandum order which allows it to intervene in deals entered into by radio and television block timers;
· The vandalism suffered by two independent bookstores — Solidaridad and Popular Bookstore — mere hours before the 2022 presidential elections commenced; and
· The purging of “radical” books by the Kalinga State University and Isabela State university in 2021.
All this came to pass under the wisp of a promise made by Marcos Jr. spokesperson Atty. Vic Rodriguez that their camp will “let our friends from the media have more access to government and governance.” However, one wonders about his definition of “access,” if the same is offered only to “friends” and not journalists out to ask the tough questions.
That Marcos Jr. himself ignored reports of this nature should tell us that he couldn’t care less about journalists than he does his army of trolls and vloggers. The recent accreditation of vloggers as Malacanang’s new “press corps” is proof of this.
What I naïvely failed to, perhaps anticipate, though understandable in the main, is the Filipino’s tendency to swing head first to the lowest discouraging denominator when tyranny overwhelms.
“Democracy is dead! We’re doomed!”
Many believe that Duterte had much to do with shaping this kind of pessimism. It is no secret that in the six years Duterte sat in power, many of our democratic institutions had suffered major blows and setbacks. The Bill of Rights, to say little of due process, have been treated with little more than lip service by the Duterte regime.
With a Marcos Jr. win upsetting any further plans to reestablish democracy through the efforts of his closest opponent, Vice President Leni Robredo, it appears the casting call is well on its way to Season II. An even worse sequel to Duterte’s rule lies in wait, and the media and the press are left to suffer the attacks in the coming series of episodes.
Is this cynicism incurable? Are we really so naïve as to believe that blocking a news organization’s website is enough to stop journalists from doing what they do best? That any wall of indifference built by the powers that be will force journalists to fall silent?
In dark times, it pays to remind ourselves of our revolutionary heritage. We are a nation raised on the backbone of warrior-poets, on the ink and paper of dramatists and novelists, journalists, artists, and songwriters, and ilustrado propagandists.
We’ve been down this road before, when social media and the internet were but shades of science fiction. All across several administrations, beginning with Ferdinand E. Marcos, censorship, using varying levels of restrictions, has been imposed for whatever trumped-up reason imaginable. The press has survived the most harrowing tests, all because we insist that “no law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press.”
As the late National Union of Journalists of the Philippines chair, Nonoy Espina, had said, “It would do well for government to remember that the press is free not because of any kindness on its part, but because independent Filipino journalists insist that it be free — and are willing to fight to keep it so.”
One needs to understand that while the power and cruelty of dictators can be frightening, as we’ve seen in the atrocities of martial law and Duterte’s anti-terrorism law, it is gripped by one extremely serious flaw: in the end, it devours its own children because pathological aggression knows no friends.
The followers themselves can end up as victims of the violence they’ve once espoused and emboldened, leaving them discontented, double-crossed, outraged. The facts and the truth provide them and their families a way of escape, thereby the chance to join the ranks of those who are pushing back the jaws of aggression.
Time again, history has taught us that where aggression is indefatigable, resistance is inevitable. Primitivo Mijares, once Marcos Sr.’s top censor, and who later penned The Conjugal Dictatorship, is a prime example.
Besides, no dictator lives forever.
Novelist Salman Rushdie wrote on censorship in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism: 1981–1991, “Where there is no debate, it is hard to go on remembering, every day, that there is a suppressed side to every argument.” This, he said, “deadens the imagination of the people.”
The whole point of tyrannical censorship is to restrict discourse by insisting on the State’s “right” to be the only credible source of information. The reason for this is simple: so that corruption, atrocities, and every other political shenanigan remain buried under tons of lies. Dictators are simply well-dressed thieves, and what better way for their thievery to remain hidden than to control the narrative.
Literature and journalism as weapons against tyranny, on the other hand, is the act of keeping the discourse, inquiry, and public imagination at the forefront of struggle so that the truth will always be out there for the public to consume.
Where words and ideas and memory remain undaunted, there the fight is most fierce. And where words and ideas and memory fall short of winning over the hearts and minds of its people, tyranny itself, by its bloodlust, suffers the foolish indignity of being the recruiter of its future adversaries. That is brutality’s singular and overwhelming weakness.
I’m aware of how bleak the future is for members of the journalism community. While romanticizing the possibility of being harassed, jailed, or assassinated is out of the question, in any struggle, courage counts for something.
While the same struggle will cost journalists a lot more than what they’re able to pay at the flick of a pen, know this: no matter the threat, it would always be “business as usual” for the tried-and-tested newshound. The standards real journalists live by do not only sustain democracy as a system of governance, it reinforces liberty as a state of mind.
That is the one turf — that of imagination and memory — where dictators have no power to occupy regardless of scare tactics. One well-trained journalist or writer, bold enough to lay down the facts for posterity, is all that is needed to defy the odds.
Thing is, we are legion.
Joel Pablo Salud is the author of several books on political nonfiction, and a member of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines and the Union of Writers of the Philippines. He currently pens a weekly column for PhilSTAR Life.