September 1972: When newsrooms went silent | Inquirer News

September 1972: When newsrooms went silent

By: - Desk Editor / @ruelsdevera
/ 04:50 AM September 21, 2022
REMEMBER THE FALLEN Portraits of slain anti-Marcos activists, being prepared here on Tuesday by the human rights watchdog Karapatan, form part of today’s cultural program at the University of the Philippines marking the 50th anniversary of the declaration of martial law.—NIÑO JESUS ORBETA

REMEMBER THE FALLEN | Portraits of slain anti-Marcos activists, being prepared here on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, by the human rights watchdog Karapatan, form part of today’s cultural program at the University of the Philippines marking the 50th anniversary of the declaration of martial law.(Photo by NIÑO JESUS ORBETA / Philippine Daily Inquirer)

MANILA, Philippines ‚ It is late in the afternoon on Sept. 22, 1972, a Friday, but the newsroom of the Manila Chronicle sounds like a war zone. There is the metallic clacking of typewriter keys, the loud exchanges, and urgent footsteps from one end of the room to the other.

Thick cigarette smoke fills the air and, as deadlines near, more coffee flows and more trips to the restroom.

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At his desk is 26-year-old Vergel O. Santos, one of the Chronicle’s deskmen and copy editors. He had been with the newspaper for six years at the time. “I was ready with my 6B pencil,” he recalled. The editors tidy up the reports, put titles on the stories, and trim them so they fit into the paper’s pages.

“The newspaper itself was put together during a six-hour block from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. By then, everything needed to be at the composing room where they would set the letter by lead type on frames,” Santos said.

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The Chronicle was owned by the Lopez family, and famously critical of then President Ferdinand Marcos. There were rumblings that Marcos would seek to remain in power beyond his term, but few took that seriously. Santos was among them.

‘It never came out’

“I liked to say then, and wrote later, ‘people would ask me what if he declares martial law? And I would say, martial law would be like a throne of crowns. Can you sit on something like that?” he said.

As 9 p.m. neared, the cacophony died down as the pages were finalized. The printing presses began running. Santos left the Manila Chronicle Building in Pasig City, secure in the thought that the Chronicle’s Saturday, Sept. 23, 1972, issue was done.

“It never came out,” he said.

Santos turned on the television after waking up that morning.

“The moment I saw the blizzard on my television screen and heard the funeral music, I had an idea something had happened,” he said. “So, I went to the Chronicle, and a number of us were there but we were not allowed in.”

They found the building surrounded by soldiers.

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On television, Marcos informed the nation that he had issued Proclamation No. 1081, but it would later be revealed that the martial law declaration was antedated to Sept. 21, not Sept. 23 when it was announced.

Soldiers watching

Santos and his colleagues were allowed back into the building the next day.

“I went in and saw that all the drawers had been pulled out and all the papers were on the floor,” he recalled. “The whole newsroom was full of clutter.”

There were soldiers in the newsroom.

“They were watching us while we looked through our stuff,” Santos said.

And though no one said it out loud, everyone knew there would be no more Chronicle from the moment the Sept. 23 issue failed to come out. There was no one to announce this because the paper’s owner, Eugenio Lopez Jr., had been arrested.

Like nearly everyone in the newspaper industry, Santos was in a panic.

“I felt lost and anxious because I had a first child being born in a couple of months, so I needed a job. And it was uncertain whether we would be paid because our own publisher was in trouble, but we were told that we could look for jobs in other newspapers.”

Unfortunately, martial law virtually exterminated Philippine newspapers, as, along with the Chronicle, the Manila Times, its sister paper the Mirror, the Evening News, and the Philippine Herald ceased publication.

The only three newspapers allowed to continue publication were the Daily Express, the Bulletin Today (today’s Manila Bulletin), and Business Day.

Clearance from Crame

In dire need of employment, Santos and a Chronicle colleague, Rustie Otico, went to Camp Crame to see the officer in charge of giving clearances for newsmen to be able to resume work. (Otico would later join the Inquirer desk. He died in 2018. –Ed.)

“And we waited. In fact, we waited for two weeks under the impression that we would get our clearances because we were small fry. But we never did,” Santos said.

He would not be able to return to a newspaper until close to the end of the decade. To make ends meet, he did annual company reports and newsletters.

“I remember setting up a little place in Dapitan hoping to help students who might be writing term papers,” he said with a laugh.

Military censor

In the remaining newspapers, all the stories would be read by an appointed military censor before being published, Santos learned, until the writers adapted to what was off-limits (the Marcoses).

As martial law stretched on, military scrutiny waned simply because the press knew what and what not to write about. The censors vanished because their job was being done by the papers themselves. “Editors were editing themselves,” Santos said.

That didn’t keep him out of trouble entirely.

Vergel O. Santos

Vergel O. Santos

In 1977, Santos was writing for a magazine for the Press Foundation of Asia called Media. Before he became the magazine’s editor, he had written a story about the Philippine press under martial law that had a “wooden title” — “The Philippine Press: Counting the Costs.’’

“And I did it as consciously, safely as I could,” he said. “Then I remember getting a call from the United Kingdom Press Gazette, asking if they could reproduce that piece, and I said, but of course, except that you don’t touch it at all. You don’t disturb it in any way, and they said yes.”

Call from Tatad

And the story did run — but not as Santos expected.

“The UK Press Gazette didn’t touch the story,” he said. “But it gave it a different title, and the title was ‘Martial law by any other name.’ And then it used, as a kicker over the title, a passage that I purposefully buried in the story. The passage said: ‘Just about the only types of news published in Manila these days is positive news, meaning, news that made, that makes everybody happy, and passive news, meaning news that makes nobody unhappy.’”

He knew it was risky but “I thought it was too cute not to drop in the body of the story.”

A few weeks later, he received a call from the office of then Press Secretary Francisco “Kit” Tatad, his former colleague at Agence France-Presse, the French news agency.

“And then I was invited to the Presidential Security Guard headquarters and shown a copy of the story that appeared in the UK Press Gazette,” he said.

These “invitations” were not optional, and journalists or anyone receiving such a summons dreaded being interrogated — or worse. But Santos wasn’t interrogated.

“I was simply harassed and threatened,” he said. “They tried to humiliate me, but I am always humble enough not to be humiliated in any case. They said they thought that I was a type of newspaper person who thought that I knew better than anybody else, you know, things like that. So, I wasn’t saying anything. But in the small hours of the morning, I was told that I could leave. I said I was going to wait for first light because it was still dark.”

Santos was not taking any chances. When morning came, he saw people arriving and that he had been left alone.

“The doors were open, so I just walked out and went to my office to tell them about my puny run-in with the government,” he said.

Later on, he figured out that the Philippine ambassador to the UK had seen the story and sent a copy that appeared in the British press to Manila.

‘Paper’ lifting

In 1979, Santos finally got back in the paper biz. He was given a contract and applied the style of the British tabloids to a Manila tabloid, helping set up the People’s Journal and its afternoon counterpart, the People’s Tonight.

“What I did was put up as many stories as I could that I called news serials, and to me what made for a good news serial will be a crime story, or a human interest story, and that was allowed by the owners of the journal so long, I think, as I was not an editor of the newspaper. I was a backroom operator. I was helping reporters get accustomed not only to the idea, but be able to adapt the style for the paper. I did a lot of rewrite and did a lot of teaching on the job,” Santos said.

It was at the Journal (which had two tabloids plus the broadsheet Times Journal) that Santos would have one more run-in with the powers that be. Martial law had ostensibly been lifted in 1981, but, as he notes, “everyone knew it was all for show. We called it a ‘paper’ lifting.” The same prohibitions and the same dangers remained in place.

Aug. 21, 1983

But sometimes, the removal of the military censors from the newsrooms would come back to bite the regime. When exiled Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr. boarded China Airlines Flight 811 from Taipei was one such instance.

That was on Aug. 21, 1983. Santos was already in the office in the morning, warning friends and family to stay glued to their TVs “because something was really going to happen.” He was in constant contact with the Journal’s airport reporter, Ben Malumay, who was feeding him “the slightest ominous clues of the situation.”

When Santos was informed that Aquino had been shot at the airport, he immediately began putting together a dozen paragraphs leading with “Ninoy Aquino shot perhaps fatally.” They weren’t yet sure Aquino was dead, but it justified an extra edition to come out by 4 p.m. “Then our editor Augusto Villanueva gets a call from the press secretary, Gregorio Cendaña, and I could make out by eavesdropping that the editor was being told not to out the story.”

Santos noticed that there was already anxiety in the newsroom he hadn’t seen in a long time. He remembers the legendary crime reporter Max Buan forcefully pushing to run the story, saying, “If we don’t print this story, we might as well stop working here.”

Lying to Cendaña

Villanueva clearly had his own moment of conscience as he outright lied to Cendaña.

“But the press is already running,” Santos heard his editor tell the press secretary.

Santos had his story ready and it had been pasted on a page, ready — but the presses were certainly not running. Santos assumed Cendaña said something to the effect of, “Then stop the press now,” to which Villanueva replied, “I will, I will go to the press now.”

Villanueva did go to the press, but he doctored the log to give the impression that at the time Cendaña called, the extra edition was already being printed. “It was a conspiracy,” Santos said with a laugh.

When Cendaña called again, 90,000 copies of the first run had already gone out. Thus did the People’s Journal become the only paper to carry the headline “Ninoy shot.”

Santos stayed on with the Journal after that, but not for long. “Then the funeral came and I helped write that story. But that did not escape them. The next morning, I did not have a desk. I was shut out of the offices and told not to come back.”

“After the shooting, everybody agreed it was the beginning of the end,” Santos said, and indeed, his prognostication proved correct as the 1986 Edsa revolt overthrew the Marcoses.

Duterte’s doing

Today is Sept. 21, a Wednesday, which for the Marcoses is the true 50th anniversary of martial law. Another Ferdinand Marcos is president. Santos is now 76. He is not optimistic about the prospects for Philippine media.

Santos said it was former President Rodrigo Duterte who set the stage for the sorry state of the press.

“We had a de facto martial law,” he said. “The militarization is there. The Red-tagging is there. He didn’t declare it because he did not need to. He had co-opted the necessary institutions of supposed democracy in the country: Congress, the Supreme Court, even the Commission on Audit. I am afraid the present disposition will carry on. That’s my fear in any case.”

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