Long Knives” Season

by Juan L. Mercado


Tension between journalists, publishers and officials, is as old as the 1440 AD  Guttenberg press. It resurfaced in Sun Star Cebu and tabloid Superbalita, the country’s most widely-circulated community papers.

Sun Star Cebu is flagship for a syndicated network of 13 papers. An average of 473,107 viewers daily surf the paper’s electronic version.  The paper garnered 236 local and international awards, since launched in November 1982 by the Garcia family. It posts a profit. Women run the top three editorial posts.  Professionalism kept politics at bay. Till now? 

DILG Secretary Mar Roxas’ suspension of Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia lit the brawl. Garcia is not a candidate for canonization.  But she was canned long after legal deadlines lapsed. It took 474 days from filing of charges to suspension. That straddled start of the 2013 campaign. Garcia burrowed into her office while DILG swore in Agnes Magpale as acting governor

This  “season of the long knives” dragged in Columnist Bobby Nalzaro’s columns. Sun Star carried Nalzaro’s scathing criticisms of Gov. Garcia, despite periodic  personal sniping. The columns  vanished after New Year.

“I’m on sabbatical’, Nalzaro told Cebu Daily News. He’d been asked to stop writing “until the Capitol conflict is resolved. It’s (the publisher’s) prerogative. I understand them and respect their decision.  After “the issue blows over,” he’d decide what to do next.   

“The press is a frail vessel for the hopes it is meant to bear”, London ’s Sunday Times editor Harold Evans wrote. “The best it can do is never enough to illuminate the complexity of forces and agencies that we can not monitor for ourselves but affect our lives. A free, cultivated resourceful and honest press can only try. And if we ever get one, it will be interesting to see what it achieves.”

In Britain, Lord Justice Leveson completed, this November, an enquiry into a Guardian expose:  News of the World hacked mobile-phone messages of a girl who  was murdered.  “The press is often thuggish,” the Leveson report states.   “The Press Complaints Commission is largely toothless.”

(Like the Philippine Press Council?  Some member- newspapers pilloried Antonio Calipjo Go who blew the whistle on textbook rackets  — a valid charge President Aquino agreed.  PPC collapsed after accused papers ignored it’s request that Calipjo Go’s side be published).

Fleet Street editors heeded the Leveson commission, and empowered their self-regulatory body to impose fines up to £1million. They rejected oversight legislation but welcomed an arbitration service for libel.  (Sen. Vicente Sotto, this January, sneaked in Section 4-c (4) on libel, as a rider,  to the then pending cybersex crime bill. That made libel non-bailable, press groups protested.)

At  “Southern Weekly” of Guangzhou, China, an editorial, calling for human rights protection, was pasted over by one praising the Communist Party. The staff staged an unprecedented strike. Demonstrators waved chrysanthemums, flowers used for funerals.

Will the “solution” that striking journalists would not be punished hold?, Dow Jones asks.  That’d signal more elbow room under new rulers led by Li Jinping.   “Warm rice porridges from southern China can soothe the soul in winter”, said a Beijing News front page feature. China observers interpreted that as support for Southern Weekly, BBC reports.

Bearded terrorists shut down Pioneer Press in 1951, forcing publisher and editor to flee Cebu. Candidate Sergio Osmena Jr. clubbed the Cuenco family for terrorism. Once seated as governor, Osmena cracked down on the Southern Star for critical columns. The paper folded.

That ham-handedness rubbed off on Osmena’s son.  In 2004, Mayor Tomas Osmena threatened to shut down GMA stations “for lack of business permits.” Osmena vowed to sue radio stations that refused City Hall ads, since it didn’t settle earlier IOUs.  He barred reporters from when displeased by their reporting  — then backed off

President Joseph Estrada, in July-November 1999, mounted an ad boycott against the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Erap was infuriated by Inquirer’s reports on mounting graft Estrada dangled a quid-pro-quo before movie producers: he’d grant their request for tax incentives — if they would pull out their ads from the Inquirer

By the month’s end, half of Inquirer’s top advertisers scrammed.  A few, like the Ayala group of companies and Marie France, stood their ground,  recalls editor Jose Nolasco. Name your price, a businessman close to Estrada told Sandy Romualdez. “The Inquirer is not for sale, not at any price. We will fight”, she told cheering employees.

Eleven years after his failed boycott, ouster by People Power, conviction for plunder and pardon, Erap visited Inquirer’s office.  “Mr. President,” would you instigate another boycott?, the editor asked.  “I hear you owe the people here P70,000 each,” referring to losses from  the boycott.  He smiled. “It was the show biz people who started it.  Sina Armida (Siguion-Reyna) yun,” he said.   “Di ba after four days, OK na ulit ang Inquirer?” Not so, Inquirer editor in chief Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc quickly noted.

In Cebu’s  press tensions, what Inquirer’s Marixi Prieto told the Personnel Management Association of the Philippines, at the peak of Estrada’s boycott  resonates: “Credibility is paramount in the news business.  And commitment to this principle requires sacrifice. The pullout of the ads is just temporary, and we hope they’ll eventually come back. But once you lose principle, it can never be regained.”

(Email: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com)

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