Being a reporter during martial law

Source: CMFR

It wasn’t easy but it was worth doing it

Being a reporter during martial law
By Jenny Santillan Santiago

HOW WAS it like to work as a journalist during martial law?

I’ve been asked this question several times by mass communication students from different schools as part of their group assignments. “For me, it was the most exciting and most challenging era for journalism,” I would tell them without hesitation.

Most people outside the working press would perhaps doubt this statement. The general perception is that given the controls over the media at that time, all stories and information would have necessarily been provided by government.

True enough, it was the era of “press release journalism.” Almost all ministries (now departments) and vital government offices had efficient information offices that prepared daily press releases for both print and broadcast media.

The headline and other front-page stories were almost always the same for the three major newspapers—the Philippine Daily Express, the Times Journal, and the Bulletin Today, which were closely monitored by Malacañang through the information ministry. Mostly, it was the good news or positive stories, that saw print. Criticisms and negative stories were usually “killed” (not published).

This kind of reportage was the result of the crackdown on the media shortly after the declaration of martial law that saw the closure and government takeover of newspapers, radio, and TV stations, and the arrest of independent-minded journalists.

‘Dead beats’

Most journalists eventually resigned themselves to the repressive situation and hung on to their jobs. They contented themselves with the press releases churned out daily by the information ministry and other data released by government offices. Enterprise stories, especially critical ones or those that encouraged critical thinking, were generally disallowed.

The work of reporters at that time consisted mainly of getting the press releases from their government beats and rewriting them. It was not surprising that some press releases were simply reprinted word for word, although they carried the bylines of reporters.

I was lucky to be part of the generation that witnessed the resurgence of student activism during martial law in the late ’70s. Like most graduates of the University of the Philippines, I wanted to help bring about changes in my chosen profession. But was there room for idealism in a passive media whose role at that time was to serve as the mouthpiece of government?

I was a young journalism graduate when I joined the Express in the early ’80s. I saw for myself the workings of the controlled media but like other activists I vowed to try and make a difference.
My first beat assignments as a new reporter were the health, science and social services ministries. For broadsheets, these were considered minor beats, similar to the police beat in ranking,  compared to the major beats like Malacañang, the Batasang Pambansa (the legislature), and national defense.
My beats were considered “dead beats” because of the general perception that there was nothing exciting or important to report about from those offices every day. But I was one of those who believed that there’s no such thing as a “dead beat” or a “minor beat,” only lousy reporters.

I found out that the task of junior reporters given minor beats was harder and a lot more challenging. For instance, in the health, science, and social services ministries and line agencies I covered, there were no daily press releases. Neither were there regular press briefings or press conferences. I actually ended up doing what reporters had to do: I had to scout for interviews and dig for information every day to come up with a good story.

Like other reporters covering these so-called minor beats, I didn’t just wait in the press room for the press releases to come in. In fact, the ministries in my beat had no press rooms to speak of, and no desks and typewriters were made available for reporters’ use.

In other beats, there were press offices manned by government information officers whose duties were primarily to monitor and clip published newspaper reports about their activities, inform reporters about the important activities or the schedules of their officials for that day, and provide materials for their stories. More often than not, those materials were not even relevant to a good story. So, again, it was up to the reporter to find the right sources and contacts to do a good job.

No ambushes here

Ambush interviews were unheard of. A reporter had to make an appointment for an interview with  ministers and other government officials. Otherwise, you couldn’t even enter their offices. If you tried to do an ambush interview, your questions would just be ignored—that is, assuming you’d get near your subject.

Sadly, even in the matter of setting interviews, it was hopeless to rely on information officers in these beats because they appeared to be as inconsequential as their menial tasks.

After the first few months of covering the health, science, and social services beats, I realized that despite the enormous effort I had put into writing stories on events, activities, and projects in these government offices, they still didn’t mean much to my editors. The prime pages were routinely reserved for the major beats while stories on the minor beats like mine ended up as space fillers or headed straight for the garbage can.

It was more disheartening when my stories about irregularities in these ministries were killed because of “insufficient” documents. It was not enough that I had in my possession written complaints about irregularities and/or that I had tried to get the officials to say more than “No comment.”
Deep in my heart, I resented what was happening but  my love for my profession sustained me. Religiously, I covered all my beats from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., then went to the office to write my stories and submit them before 7 p.m.

I made it a point to turn in at least one story for each beat everyday, even just the so-called attendance story. I remember that as soon as I entered the news room, the editorial desk would always ask me what my stories were for the day. I would give my editor and deskmen a quick rundown and spend time explaining the merits of my stories.

Finding the news

My first front-page story was a series I did on sexual harassment in a government office, a subject which at that time was spoken about only in whispers. It was assigned by my editor in chief, who perhaps saw how frustrated I had become in covering the stories that I regularly wrote from my beats. Printed data about sexual harassment at that time were hard to find and so were victims who were willing to be interviewed. I managed to do a three-part story that elicited commendations and encouraging letters to the editor. For me, more than the byline and the chance to do a front-page series was the opportunity to expose the plight of many working women.

In covering the least-prioritized government beats, I realized that I could get more stories outside the office premises. For instance, I was able to develop a story on a new drug which was being tested on leprosy patients by the health ministry and a foreign entity.

From a tip from an officer at the health ministry and from interviews with patients at the Tala Leprosarium in Bulacan,  I learned that the drug had adverse side effects.

I also exposed condemned milk shipments that were being pilfered from the Bureau of Customs and then sold in the market. I got the lead from my sources in the health ministry and among consumers groups.

I kept writing about the condemned-milk-for-sale every day until the Bureau of Customs chief himself came to the Express office to request our editor to stop publishing my stories. My editor told me that the customs bureau chief wanted to talk to me but I was still out on coverage. He said we could drop the subject since my stories had already resulted in a congressional inquiry and the customs bureau chief had assured him that he was investigating the anomaly. We had already made our point, he said. End of story.

Secret places

Soon after, I began exposing fake drugs in the market and the syndicate behind the trade. My efforts brought me to secret meeting places where I interviewed disgruntled syndicate members who gave me details about the person behind the scam, his nationwide modus operandi, his powerful connections, what drugs were being faked, and the gravity of the problem. Again, some of my contacts at the health ministry introduced me to some syndicate members who were then cooperating with the military to help arrest the syndicate leader.

Continuously writing these stories and lobbying for them at the editorial desk eventually paid off. My running story on fake drugs earned front-page treatment and a byline for me. The compromise: no mention of the brand names of the drugs, only their generic names. The result: another congressional inquiry, almost daily visits from the public relations persons of the big drug companies involved, and telephone calls from the syndicate head and a military official handling the case.

Once I was virtually interrogated by that military official, who demanded that I divulge the sources of my stories on fake drugs. I insisted that that was part of privileged communication. When he saw that his threats were getting him nowhere, he did a 180-degree turn and appealed to me to stop writing the stories “just for a while” because these were jeopardizing the case.

In exchange, he promised an exclusive story after they caught the syndicate leader. He also promised to let me accompany his raiding team. I agreed since I had already run out of new data on fake drugs to write about, anyway. The military officer made good his promises.

Between exposés, I wrote about the grievances of health workers and consumer groups. Many failed to see print, while a few paragraphs of some were added at the end of Malacañang or labor stories (usually the latter part of a story preceded by the word, “Meanwhile, … ). For me, a few paragraphs were better than full censorship.

In the meantime, I had become unpopular with the health minister then. He said I was only interested in negative publicity. Just before one of his rare press conferences, he went near me and whispered: “Jennifer, please don’t ask embarrassing questions.” I retorted: “Sir, you refuse to grant me interviews. This is my only chance (to ask you questions).” All other health officials were wary of me, literally hiding and refusing to talk to me.
Later, the health minister would accommodate me in his office whenever I needed an interview. Still, I kept on writing what to him were negative, controversial stories.

A new era

Towards the end of martial law, government relaxed its hold on the press. Anti-government sentiments were running high, an offshoot of the assassination of former senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. Rallies, demonstrations, and other forms of protest actions had become daily occurrences. Media could not remain passive in the face of this political turmoil.

By then, I had moved on to a new tabloid, Tempo. A sister publication of the Bulletin Today, Tempo was originally designed to be a hard-hitting political tabloid.

Keeping in step with the times, I covered the dailystreet rallies of the sectors falling under my beats—namely, students, teachers, and labor. It was still the Marcos years, and yet I felt I could freely write about legitimate grievances and issues raised by these sectors.

I and a reporter of the Express were able to sneak into one of the closed-door meetings between then President Ferdinand Marcos and the leaders of Manila public school teachers who had gone on general strike.

The teachers smuggled us into Malacañang so we could write a comprehensive account of the meeting. Well, we were not caught. At that time, the labor sector was at the height of militancy. Workers were staging strikes all over Metro Manila. Even the Bataan Export Processing Zone  and the American military bases in Subic and Clark were hit by strikes. Many times, I would hitch a ride with a labor official to cover these protest actions.

Being able to interview wanted leftist leaders in a secret place was a big scoop at that time. I was lucky to have been one of two journalists who were the first to interview the late Antonio Zumel of the National Democratic Front who was still underground.

My work as a journalist also took me to Samar to cover the mass rallies of Catholic priests to protest the arrest of the late Fr. Ed Kangleon. I posed as Kangleon’s “favorite cousin” so that his military jailers would allow me to enter his detention cell. Looking back, I don’t know how I was able to convince them that I was the priest’s relative when I did not know anything about him.

Those crucial years when the dictatorship was fighting a losing battle against street parlia-mentarians in the metropolis and the communist insurgents in the countryside changed the course of journalism.

Many reporters and photo-journalists had themselves been victims of dispersal operations (truncheons, teargas, water canon, etc.). Some were even arrested or labeled as leftists or communists. Still, we kept doing our jobs as best as we could.

Now, who says there was no excitement and challenge in martial law journalism?

Jennifer Santillan Santiago was executive editor of the defunct Mirror magazine.

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