Throwback: Veteran journalists recall struggles under Marcos dictatorship
“We slept on tabletops whenever it was risky to go home. I never drove the same route,” University of the Philippines’ associate professor Yvonne Chua said—referring to the time when she was working at the independent newspaper Ang Pahayagang Malaya during the Marcos dictatorship in the 1980s.
Chua was recounting her experiences for the event “Is Journalism a Public Good,” the May 3 forum on World Press Freedom Day organized by ACFJ and the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines. The stories she and her fellow speakers shared were filled with lessons from a time many have almost forgotten.
Before she became a part of the alternative press, Chua started in the mainstream media where truthful information was repressed by the government.
“I have been experienced stories not being run, and it bothered me a lot,” she said. “But I could see that there were a lot of efforts, even among journalists under those trying circumstances, trying to put out the truth knowing that information is vital, even in a highly repressed environment.”
After moving to Ang Pahayagang Malaya, Chua said that the environment was very different. She was working with people who had also left the mainstream media, as well as with fresh graduates—regardless of whether they had a journalism background or not.
Apart from their office having no electricity, their paper always faced the risk of getting confiscated, and their journalists were always in danger of being arrested. Then when the People Power revolution happened, her editor, Joe Burgos, decided to split the team. The female editors were moved to a safe house to make sure that the paper would continue, while the male editors stayed in the office to put out the newspaper, Chua said.
“It was really amazing under those trying circumstances—with typewriters and typesetters and two-way radios—how we put out the paper,” Chua said.
On the eve before the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos left the country following his ouster, Burgos ordered the team to return to the newsrooms. Chua said that they danced on the streets the following day.
“It somehow showed you that people also took risks because the newsdealers, the newsboys, even people who had a copy of Malaya were at risk of being arrested, or their copies getting confiscated. They would go out of their way just to find out what is happening, what is correct information, or what is the truth, or information that was being withheld from them,” she said.
Chua and GMA news anchor Howie Severino were speakers at the forum moderated by ACFJ chair John Nery.
Severino also shared his experiences under the Marcos regime. During his college days in the U.S., he was already critical of the administration and would often visit Ninoy Aquino—Marcos’ biggest critic—to ask him about his views on certain Philippine issues. He said that it was Aquino who had “opened my eyes to a lot of what was going on.”
Then in 1983, Aquino was assassinated, which was also the same year Severino graduated from college. He said it had a huge impact on his 21-year old self as Aquino was the first person he knew well who was killed. He then decided to go back to his home country the following year and started writing for independent publications. Severino also noted that it was the time when much of the Philippine press was controlled by the Marcos regime.
One of his worst experiences during those years was his arrest in 1985 when he was taking photographs as a freelancer but was apprehended and then charged as being an organizer. He recalled that being a freelancer, he had no press ID to show and his photos were used as evidence against him. He also had the experience of being blindfolded while being taken around the camp.
“I learned a lot about the way the government was running things at that time,” he said. “I was deprived of my rights.”
Following his release and Marcos’ ouster, Severino was recruited into the Aquino administration to write speeches for a cabinet secretary. It was in 1988 when he joined The Manila Chronicle and officially became a journalist. The following year, he then became one of the founding board members of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) in 1989.
Despite these experiences, both Chua and Severino remain grateful to the journalism profession and their colleagues.
Severino added that his dominant impression on journalism from being a constant news consumer and as someone who joined the media in 1988 was that it was a “noble profession”, even though scholars and their research might disagree on this nowadays.
“[Journalists] were far from perfect, far from being saints, but I felt that they had the best interest of the profession and the country and the public at heart. And they were my role models. I’m eager to mention their names because they had a huge impact on me as being role models. That’s why it pains me today to read and hear people refer to journalists as presstitutes”.
On the other hand, Chua added that even her editors from the mainstream media were the ones that kept her going, telling her that those difficult times are going to end.
“I still remember them telling me that ‘the wall will fall’. That nobody is going to tolerate that such a prolonged suppression of not just press freedom or freedom of expression, but of human rights,” she said. “So it’s something that—as a journalist—shaped me how important correct information, full information, complete information, and the role of journalism, and putting out that type of information.”