COMMENT: More than the Mural. By Patricio P. Diaz

Ironically, the National Press Club, in commissioning the Neo-Agono Collective Artists “to do a mural on the history of press freedom in the Philippines,” particularly projecting “threats to the press such as killings and libel suits,” exposed its flawed thinking by accusing the artists of producing a “political” piece (INQUIRER.net, Nov. 4).

The mural depicts press freedom and hazards from the struggle against Spain, to the suppression of freedom under the Marcos dictatorship and to repression under the Arroyo government.  NPC President Roy Mabasa saw with his politicized eyes politics in the piece where there was none.  But as the poet Alexander Pope said, “all looks yellow  to a jaundiced eye.”

Press Freedom

Freedom of the press is the right of every member of the press – whether printed, oral, audio-visual or online – to publish or express facts, opinions and ideas which he or she thinks and believes as the truth. As conditions, standards and norms vary, facts may differ. Opinions and ideas may clash as persuasions, views and beliefs differ according to cultural, social, ideological, religious, etc. upbringing of people.

A truly free press is a free market of facts, opinions and ideas. Every person is free to adopt or reject any of them according to his or her understanding and judgment – knowing what is good for him or her, his or her family, the community and the country.  However, imposing on others what one believes as the truth by the use of force, threat, bribery, deceit or any form of trickery is a violation of freedom.

What do the NPC officers perceive the National Press Club to be?

Egco said:  “Mabasa said we should not leave any impression that the NPC leans toward the Left or Right or Center; it should only reflect the state of the Philippine press when it was commissioned.”

Mabasa reiterated this: “We don’t want to be politicized; they went overboard [referring to the creators of the mural].  We don’t want to be associated with the Left or Right. The club is apolitical; it can stand on its own.”   

By “apolitical,” he evidently means that all NPC members are neither conservative (Right), liberal (Left) nor moderate (Center).  Is that the truth? Is that possible? Writes the Philippine Daily Inquirer in its editorial of November 5, 2007:


“Can any journalist honestly say that press freedom in the country is “apolitical”?  Non-partisan, yes, often enough, but never apolitical, precisely because the freedom to write the truth was won and lost and won again in political struggle.  That is why Andres Bonifacio is there; he wrote for Kalayaan.  That is why Inquirer columnist Juan Mercado is there; he went to jail when martial law was declared.  To deny these and similar “details” is to render press freedom vulnerable to another assault.”

The assault has actually begun at the National Press Club.  Mabasa and his group surrendered meekly.

Political

The central figure of the mural is a man reading a newspaper in the middle of a bustling street crowd. A statement of the International Federation of Journalists in the upper right page “about the effects on press freedom of the Human Security Act, or the anti-terror law” was painted over with a “bird-monster in a cage.”  Why?

Obviously, the caged “bird-monster” portrayed the containment of killers preying on journalists. The mural was unveiled by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo last October 26.  The IFJ statement would have hurt her; the substitution must have pleased her – feigning success in protecting journalists.

The figure of Andres Bonifacio, who wrote in the propaganda paper Kalayaan, relates the mural to the revolution against Spain. An alibata K, a native Filipino alphabet, tattooed on left upper arm was replaced with a red heart pierced with an arrow. Why? An officer of the Presidential Security Guard pointed to this as “leftist marks.”  That could have displeased Arroyo since she is waging a war against the Left and the Communists.

The newspaper’s headline, “Press Freedom Fighter’s Son Abducted,” with the pictures of Jonas Burgos, son of Jose Burgos, founder of Malaya, the anti-martial law newspaper, and Jonas’ mother Edita portray the state of press freedom as well as that of human rights under the Arroyo administration. The headline was changed to “Press Freedom Fight Is On” and the faces of Jonas and Edita were altered.  Why?

The Jonas Burgos episode states the failure of the Arroyo administration to stop extrajudicial killings and abductions of journalists and leftist.  That would have offended her. The substitute headline gives her the false satisfaction that the fight she has claimed to be leading is going on.

The demonstrators in the mural bearing the banner of the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines portray the protest of journalists against the harassment of journalists under Arroyo. The NUJP was erased from the banner.  Why? This would have embarrassed the President.

There were other alterations that blurred the original message of the artists just to avoid offending Arroyo.  Suppression of ideas perceived as leftist to avoid a clash with a repressive regime is a political act.  How could Mabasa claim that NPC is “apolitical” and boast that NPC “can stand on its own”?

The alterations were in contradiction to their own statement that the mural “should only reflect the state of the Philippine Press when it was commissioned”.  They had the true state defaced to depict the state that they knew Arroyo wanted to see.

Just to Please

Revealed facts and statements of Mabasa and NPC board director Joel Sy Egco conclusively tell that the hasty alteration of the mural was done to avoid the ire of Arroyo whose “reputed” temper is too well known among the members of the Fourth Estate (INQUIRER.net, Nov. 5, 6).

Richard Gappi, president of the Neo-Angono Artists Collective, said the contract gave the artists “free rein” to paint the mural based on the theme of press freedom. As agreed, “We gave them three weeks to look at the production process before the unveiling”. They did not.

After the PSG had called Mabasa’s attention to “leftist marks” on the day before the unveiling, Mabasa called Gappi for the need of revision. “They can’t just ask us to go there on short notice” Gappi said. “Besides, any alteration had to be mutually agreed upon.”

Egco said, “From Day One, I was with them [the artists]. … The mural is beautiful as it is.”  He did not see “leftist marks.” Neither did Mabasa see “leftist marks” during the three-week time to see the mural before the unveiling.  He did see only after the PSG officer pointed one to him.  Obviously, he looked closely at the mural to find more of those political “No, No” to Arroyo.

Now, Mabasa, Egco and presumably the entire board of directors would like to dialogue with the artists. The changes, according to Egco, were “temporary” and done in “good faith.” He called the alterations “minor” and said “Mabasa had meant no harm to the artists by ordering the ‘minor changes.’ Egco’s statement is least convincing. (Bold Italics supplied.)

Evidently shaken but resentful, Mabasa said of the artists: “They could have just sat down with us and retouch it.  We are willing to sit down with them.” Egco added: “We give the Neo-Angono the freedom to make the necessary correction.  They can go there any time of the day or night.”

But Wire Tuazon, Neo-Angono’s chair, sees no point in meeting with Mabasa and his board or “in restoring the mural in its original state.”  As a fore-thought, should the mural be restored to its original, what will NPC do in the event that Arroyo visits the NPC building any time before June 30, 2010?

Pro-Arroyo

Mabasa’a and Egco’s apology is understandable. They are obviously pro-Arroyo and so is NPC. Mabasa is chief of reporters of Manila Bulletin. He succeeded as NPC president on August 23, 2006 Antonio J. Antonio, a four-time president from 1991 to 2006 – the provincial news editor of Manila Bulletin. Mabasa was No.1 board director under Antonio’s last term.

Manila Bulletin is traditionally a pro-government newspaper since the time of its founder Hans Menzi, a close aide of President Ferdinand E. Marcos. Manila Bulletin and three others – Times Journal, Daily Express and Business Day – were the only national dailies published during the martial law period. It naturally follows that a pro-government paper has pro-government executives, editors and staff.

Mabasa and his officers were inducted by Arroyo in Malacañang on August 23, 2006.  That spoke much about their leaning.  To show their independence of NPC, why did they not hold the induction at the NPC building with a non-political inducting officer like judges and justices of the courts?

NPC has joined protests against abuses suffered by media people.  But during the suppression and harassment of media by the Arroyo government under Proclamation 1017 of February 24, 2005, NPC was not among the media institutions and civil societies that defied Arroyo. The censorship of the press freedom mural that NPC itself had commissioned exposed Mabasa, who was No. 1 board member then.

In Sorry State

Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Neal Cruz wrote on November 5 that the “mural is supposed to depict press freedom; instead, it illustrated very clearly how the press (or the National Press Club which is supposed to be an association of journalists) is under the thumb of the government and how certain officials of the NPC succumbed too easily or are willing accomplices of censorship?”

This sorry state of the NPC, he said, “started when some fixers in the Bureau of Customs succeeded in becoming regular members of the NPC….” While “the more responsible members of the press derisively call [them] hao shiao … or pseudo-journalists or pretenders … they are technically qualified to run for positions in the club, which they did.  They have since then managed to assume control of the NPC through the backdoor.”

He said that the 2006-2008 officers were elected in a second election ordered by the court.  The “more responsible” and “legitimate members” who elected their officers in a separate first election boycotted the second election – losing “by default via court order.”

This may explain why no big-name journalists from leading newspapers, radio and television are among the five officers and 11 board directors for 2006-2008. Look at this composition:

Of the five officers, the president is Manila Bulletin’s chief of reporters; the vice president and treasurer are from the tabloid Remate; the secretary and auditor are from Daily Tribune.

Of the eleven board members: two are from the tabloid Hataw; one from another tabloid Police Files Tonite; two from the tabloid Peoples Journal; two from Manila Times; one from Manila Tribune; one from the provincial paper Panay News; one from Channel 4; and one from NPC.

Two of the officers and three of the board members were in the 2004-2006 set of NPC officers.  In that set, the No. 2 board member was PNP Chief Supt. Cris Maralit, a life-time member. Even if he had been a practicing journalist before joining the Police, what business has he being with NPC?

I am not familiar with the membership qualification in the NPC – whether publishers and senior editors and executives are qualified for membership.  Whatever, the NPC looks like an employees union run by low-ranked employees and janitors.  Can they stand up for press freedom against a repressive president, the government, the police and the military?

Mabasa did not – because obviously, he could not – defend press freedom depicted in the mural when an object was questioned by a PSG officer as “leftist mark.” Instead, he took that as a cue to purge from the mural all what he himself perceived as “leftist marks”.

The Philippine Press

To some extent, not only the NPC but the whole Philippine press is also in a sorry state. As the Fourth Estate, how unified are the members and their leaders and how concerned are they with one another? Neal Cruz’s account of how the pseudo-journalists have taken control of the NPC may be instructive.  Perhaps, the lowly members have been discriminated against by the elite.

How immune is the Philippine press from the influence of the government and its high officials in Malacañang and Congress? Can the working press be bought with favor and money, thus, placing in jeopardy their freedom?

On May 16, 2005, during a consultative meeting with top leaders of the Philippine media, President Arroyo launched the P5-million Press Freedom Fund – P3 million from her and P2 million from Speaker Jose de Venecia — to stop the killing of journalist and assist the families of the victims. The P2 million from De Venecia was contributed by members of Congress. 

A covenant between the government and the press was signed by representatives of the Publishers Association of the Philippines, the NPC, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, and the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists representing the Philippine media and by the speaker for government.

The apprehension and prosecution of the killers of journalists is the obligation of the government. Even if the Fund and its companion Quick Reaction Task Force were specially created for journalists, those will not necessarily bind the press to the government with utang na loob or debt of gratitude. But the assistance to the families of slain journalists is a favor expecting a favor in return.  For journalists that may mean giving favorable publicity.

Instead of taking care of their members in time of need, media institutions and organizations don’t or they do as mere palliative. They don’t mind seeing or knowing that their members are in the payroll of government or politicians at the sacrifice of freedom of the press. As that covenant signed on May 16, 2005 showed, if government and Congress take care of press people in need, press leaders welcome it.

The censorship by the NPC of the freedom of the press depicted in the mural it had commissioned in order to please President Arroyo is rooted in the sorry state of the press of the press’ own making. If the mural is not restored to its original state, the NPC should take it down. 

But more than that, members of the Philippine press and their leaders must restore whatever has been lost in the purity of their perception of press freedom and their integrity and zeal in its advocacy. ("Comment" is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz' column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Mr. Diaz is the recipient of a "Lifetime Achievement Award" from the Titus Brandsma for his "commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate." You may e-mail your comments to [email protected]).

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