Women writers resist the ‘dictatorship redux’
Women writers, who fought the censorship, intimidation and arrests during the Marcos martial law, found the spectre of dictatorship hard to ignore today.
The attempts to shut down news organizations and the forms of intimidation done to independent journalists are acts reminiscent of authoritarian rule under former president Ferdinand Marcos. But wised up on their struggle, women journalists said the push back would require the journalists joining other opposition groups in resisting the anti-media stance of the government of president Rodrigo Duterte.
In a forum ‘Women Talk Back: We are not All Vagina,” held at the College of Mass Communication in the University of the Philippines last March 8, five women writers recalled how they overcame fear to write the stories of human rights abuses, tortures, disappearances and killings under Marcos. They were Melinda Quintos de Jesus, Malou Mangahas, Jo-Ann Maglipon, Ceres Doyo and Lourdes Molina-Fernandez. Back then, they were subjected to censorship but probably among the worse, as recalled by Maglipon and Doyo, was facing a group of top military officers of Marcos, to answer all sorts of questions – personal, political and some flippant ones – that were intended to stop them from writing. Spoiler alert: they did not.
De Jesus, who heads the media watchdog, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), looked back on her writing path, from editing an entertainment magazine to leading one of the “mosquito” or anti-Marcos presses, which helped to undermine Marcos’ hold to power, especially after the assassination of President Benigno Aquino, Jr.When speaking about journalism, De Jesus delivered a tweetable line in the forum:
At one point De Jesus mentioned the names of women journalists who, despite the risks of being jailed or losing their jobs, kept on writing. Some of them have passed away, like the Philippine Daily Inquirer editor Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc. Others are still around but worried over the return of media repression. Their colleagues who were in the audience were seen nodding their heads when De Jesus spoke.
During the last years of the Marcos dictatorship, women journalists formed the Women Writers in Media Now (WOMEN), which called for a boycott of the three pro-Marcos newspapers, Daily Express, Bulletin and Journal, also known as the crony press. They also asked the public to support the anti-Marcos press. The boycott call probably contributed to the phenomenal growth of independent publications like Malaya, Mr. & Ms. and Veritas, from 1983 until 1986, and the establishment of Philippine Inquirer in 1985. The women journalists also supported the activist and partisan publications that survived, not on advertising revenues but the goodwill of donations and street sales.
Maglipon, whose first-rate writing lent a quality to her defiance, recalled her arrest, the rejection her feature pieces, dangerous assignments and the time when she was “invited” by top military men to a “dialogue” in December of 1982. Maglipon, Doyo, Arlene Babst, Ninez Cacho Olivares, Domini Torrevillas Suarez, Lorna Kalaw Tirol, Eugenia Apostol and Doris Nuyda, were separately asked to attend a “dialogue” with the military inside a military camp. It turned out to be interrogation of sorts that lasted for three hours. They were asked, among others things, if they are part of subversive organizations and if they knew that subversives were “using” their stories. Maglipon was also asked point-blank if she is a member of the Communist Party of the Philippines. She replied that she went to a religious-ran school thus steeped in Catholic values, taught in a school run by nuns and so forth although that was not really what she wanted to say.
Doyo came to the forum with books that she wrote and the news that she has partly funded the reprinting of the soon-to-be-released “The Philippine Press Under Siege.” The latter is a two-volume anthology of news, features, editorials, statements and images that was published in 1985 by the Committee to Protect Writers of the National Press Club but now out-of-print. In that book, Doyo recalled facing what she termed the “military Sanhedrin” that wanted to know about her religion, her news sources, Asian spirituality, and why does she write about such things that make the government appear so evil.
In the forum, Doyo shared her efforts to keep alive the memory of the media under the climate of fear during the Marcos era. She collects mementoes — posters, handbills, her articles, and photocopies of her articles – some of which she donated to the Bantayog ng mga Bayani or the shrine for heroes and martyrs. Her attention to details served her well. When she faced the military officers, she first asked them for their names. Thus, when Doyo, Maglipon and their six colleagues asked the Supreme Court to restrain the military from doing further interrogations, the officers on Doyo’s list became the respondents.
Fernandez recounted the beginnings of We Forum and Malaya, the two newspapers established by the late Jose Burgos Jr. We Forum started the tradition of the “mosquito press,” the termed used by the Marcos administration to refer to opposition newspapers because they were small and annoying. Marcos underestimated their bite, so to speak, because the mosquito press not only published information ignored by the Marcos media, it also built and expanded communities of critical newspaper readers all over the country.
What was distinct of Fernandez’s words is their radical ring. She noted that the campaign for a free press today could succeed by their close connection with the struggles of other marginalized groups.
Fernandez’s analysis brings an understanding that Duterte’s strained relationship with the media stems not from his preference for ad hominem and threatening words towards journalists and news corporations. It came from the capacity of dictators to silence criticisms and do away with accountability. Maglipon also said it well.
Probe Team’s Cheche Lazaro, a journalist who introduced intelligent and revelatory television documentary to Filipinos, has observed a running thread of media repression all these years. She said the pressure and the chilling effect on the media continued long after Marcos fell out of power. There are lessons from the vigilance of the anti-Marcos press that could inspire journalists today.
The talk back forum was an inter-generational dialogue of women writing under authoritarian rule then (Marcos) and now (Duterte). The three journalists who represented the current crop – Kara David, Ces Drilon and Jo Clemente – said something about the spectacle of a cursing and misogynist president and its effects on media.
The Philippine Center of Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), CMFR, and the Philippine Press Institute were the organizers.
The forum’s title “We are not All Vagina” was the feminists’ retort to Duterte’s horrid anti-women remark of shooting women rebels in the vagina because they are nothing without their pudenda. Duterte’s statement was criticized for its coarseness, sexism and its silencing intent. It reflects very much his regard for women as sex objects. What the women journalists tried to convey during the forum, on the occasion of the International Women’s Day, was that their combined strength and capacity to fight back are not reducible to their private parts.