The Philippine press was born and nurtured amidst a climate of political reform. The early Philippine newspapers played critical role in the nation’s quest for freedom and independence. Thus, the pantheon of our national heroes include such journalists as Jose Rizal, Graciano Lopez Jaena, Mariano Ponce, Antonio Luna, to name a few. Their writings inspired the Philippine revolution against Spain, the first challenge by an Asian people against western colonials.
This nationalistic fervor is to be ingrained in the spirit of succeeding Filipino journalists throughout our nation’s history. Perhaps equally dramatic as the Propaganda Movement during the Spanish regime was the struggle of the so-called alternative press during the Marcos regime, whose collective vision saw fulfillment in the EDSA Poeple Power Revolution in 1986. The politicization or conscientization of the Filipinos were fired up by journalists, many of whom were women, who like their noble predecessors, risked their lives for freedom and democracy.
The Philippine press is known as the freest and liveliest in Asia. Because of the libertarian and free enterprise principles institutionalized by the American colonizers, it essentially played a “watchdog” function and has often taken an adversarial stance against government. The freedom enjoyed by Philippine press (media), however, has become a double-edged sword. The press (media) began to be criticized for being rambunctious and sensational. Being commercial in nature, the press is dependent on advertising as its lifeblood.
The Philippine Press: Its Initial Pages
The first Philippine newspaper was established in 1811. Del Superior Govierno was published with the Spanish Governor General himself as editor. Its intended readers were the local Spaniards and therefore the content was primarily news from Spain. The first daily newspaper, La Esperanza (1846), also catered to the Spanish elite. It dealt with non-controversial subjects such as religion, science, and history. The best edited newspaper, Diario de Manila, was suppressed by the Governor General after 38 years of publication, allegedly for inciting the Filipinos to rebel against the Spaniards. Meanwhile, the first local publication was El Ilocanowhich started in 1893 while the first publication for and by women, El Hogar was published in 1893.
The history of the free press in the Philippines has its roots in nationalistic newspapers published in Europe and in the Philippines during the Spanish colonial rule. The aim was to raise the level of consciousness with respect to oppressive conditions prevailing in the country then. These newspapers were mainly published and written by the so-called ilustrados.
Foremost among the nationalistic newspapers was the La Solidaridad, the mouthpiece of the revolution and the fortnightly organ of the Propaganda Movement. Published in Spain, it first appeared in 1889 with the policy “to work peacefully for social and economic reforms, to expose the real plight of the Philippines, and to champion liberalism and democracy.”
Other newspapers which advocated for political reforms included Kalayaan (Liberty), the only issue of which was published 1898. Kalayaan served as the official organ of the revolutionaries. La Independencia(1898), was the most widely read newspaper of the revolution. Other newspapers were La Libertad (1898), andEl Heraldo de Iloilo (1898).
The use of the power of the pen by the early heroes proved the feasibility of using non-violent strategies for social and political reforms, a lesson well imbibed by Filipino journalists even today.
The American regime saw the introduction of new newspapers published mostly by American journalists:The Manila Times (1898), The Bounding Billow and Official Gazette (1898), Manila Daily Bulletin (1900), and the Philippine Free Press (1908). Some of these publications are still with us today. In 1920, The Philippine Herald, a pro-Filipino newspaper, came out.
Other nationalistic newspapers during the period did not last long due to American suppression. Among these were El Nuevo Dia (The New Day) published in Cebu and El Renacimiento. But the most popular among the masa was the Tagalog newspaper Sakdal which attacked regressive taxes, big government, and abusive capitalists and landlords — issues which remain relevant today.
When World War II broke out, all publications except those used by the Japanese were disbanded. Only theManila Tribune, Taliba, and La Vanguardia were allowed to publish under regular censorship by the Japanese Imperial Army. However, Filipinos during the period were not left without an “alternative” media. Underground “newspapers”, mostly typewritten or mimeographed, proliferated to provide the people with counter information.
The Golden Age of Philippine Journalism
The post-war era to pre-martial law period (1945-1972) is called the golden age of Philippine journalism. The Philippine press began to be known as “the freest in Asia.”
The press functioned as a real watchdog of the government, It was sensitive to national issues and critical of government mistakes and abuses. Among its practitioners were a clutch of scholarly, noble-minded writers and editors — Mauro Mendez, Arsenio Lacson, Modesto Farolan, Leon Guerrero, Armando Malay, S.P. Lopez, Jose Bautista, to name a few.
The press during the period was forced into a “marriage of convenience” with large business enterprises and political groups. Most of the newspapers were wholly or partly owned by large business complexes. Some newspapers had control and interest in other media particularly radio and television.
In 1952, the National Press Club was organized “to promote cooperation among journalists and uphold press freedom and the dignity of journalists.” In 1964, the Philippine Press Institute (PPI) was organized “to foster the development and improvement of journalism in the country.”
The Marcos Years: Controlled and Alternative Press
When martial law was declared on September 21, 1972, the first order issued by the late President Ferdinand E. Marcos was the “take over and control of all privately owned newspapers, magazines, radio and television facilities and all other media communications.” Editors and journalists were among the first to be arrested and incarcerated in military prison camps. Of the pre-martial law papers, only the Daily Express andBulletin Today (Manila Bulletin) were allowed to re-open. A new newspaper, Times Journal, was allowed to open one month after the proclamation. These newspapers were later to be known as “establishment press.”
As expected, the press during the martial law period was highly controlled. Almost overnight, the print media changed its traditional adversary relationship with the government to that of “cooperation.” Many journalists learned to practice brinkmanship and even self-censorship in order to survive or avoid direct confrontation with the regime.
To counter propaganda churned out by the pro-government private media and the government’s own media infrastructure, the so-called alternative press emerged in the 1980s. These were a handful of tabloid newspapers and some radio stations which defied government instructions on how to handle news stories (despite constant harassment and intimidations). Among these publications and the people behind them were: the father and son team of Jose Burgos who were behind the courageous tabloid WE Forum and its broadsheet affiliate, Pahayagang Malaya; Felix Bautista and Melinda Q. de Jesus edited Veritas; Raul and Leticia Locsin published Business Day (now Business World); Eugenia D. Apostol and Leticia J. Magsanoc published and edited Inquirer and Mr. and Ms. Magazine.
In addition to the alternative press, the people also opted for samizdat or xerox journalism. These were news clippings, mostly from foreign publications, censored for mass dissemination by the regime, which provided an accurate reading of developments in the country. Many of these articles were written by Filipinos working for the foreign news services.
The nationalistic fervor was also strongly manifested among the youth through campus publications which have taken an activist stand on national issues. Notable among them were the Philippine Collegian of UP-Diliman, Ang Malaya of the Philippine College of Commerce (now Polytechnic University of the Philippines),Pandayan of Ateneo de Manila University, Ang Hasik of the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila and Balawis of Mapua Institute of Technology.
Women journalists proved to be equally if not more daring than men in their writing. Even the emergence of the so-called alternative press came about essentially through the efforts of women editors and journalists. Several women journalists were subjected to harassment, threats and intimidation by the military. Among these courageous women journalists were Eugenia D. Apostol, Betty Go-Belmonte, Letty Magsanoc, Arlene Babst, Ninez Cacho Olivares, Domini Torrevillas, Melinda de Jesus, Tina Monzon Palma, Malou Mangahas, Sheila Coronel, and Ceres Doyo.
Among the outstanding heroes during the struggle against the Marcos regime was Joaquin “Chino” Roces, publisher of the pre-martial law The Manila Times and regarded as the Grand Old Man of Philippine journalism.
Newspapers Today: A Press in Transition
There are a total of 14 “national” daily broadsheets and 19 tabloids published in Metro Manila (1998 Philippine Media Factbook). The combined circulation of these newspapers is estimated to be only about 7 million, including pass on readership, in a country of almost 75 million.
Of the 14 broadsheets, only two are in Filipino — Kabayan andNumero Uno. Among the newspapers with biggest claimed daily circulation are Manila Bulletin (280,000 on weekdays and 300,000 on Sundays), Philippine Daily Inquirer,(260,000 and 280,000 respectively) and Philippine Star (271,687).
Tabloids, with an average cost of half the broadsheets enjoy a higher circulation and seem to be preferred by readers in the C, D and E income brackets. Tabloids are written in Taglish, a combination of English and Filipino and have an entertainment gossip slant. The most popular tabloid is Abante with a claimed circulation of 417,600. Another favorite is People’s Journal with claimed circulation of 382,000.
There are also five Chinese broadsheets, all published in Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown. These includeUnversal Daily News, China Times, World News, United Daily News, and Chinese Commercial News.
Enjoying a “revival” are the provincial newspapers. The 1998 Philippine Media Factbook reported that there are now 408 provincial publications nationwide. Of this number, 30 are daily publications, 292 come out weekly, and the rest are either monthly or quarterly publications. In the 1980s, there were less than 10 provincial dailies located in the key cities. The immediate readership of provincial newspapers is estimated at about 2,000 subscribers for each of the publications. Assuming that each subscriber passes on the newspaper to at least one person, there are a million Filipinos reached by the provincial dailies.
An important trend is the emergence of a chain of provincial newspapers nationwide owned by a single corporation. An example is the Sun Star dailies found in major cities nationwide such as Baguio, Angeles, Cebu, Iloilo, Dumaguete, Cagayan de Oro and Davao. Most of these provincial papers were existing but not viable when bought by Sun Star. The acquisition has enabled the new owners to infuse additional capital, acquire new printing equipment and facilities, and hire more editorial staff. The result is significant improvement in the editorial quality of most of these newspapers.. Some provincial dailies can now compete with the so-called national (Metro Manila-based) dailies in terms of editorial quality.
But the most popular reading fare in the country is still the illustrated komiks. The Media factbook reported 46 komik titles published either weekly or twice a week. Most of these feature drama-love story and horror. Among the popular ones arre Aliwan Lovelife, Beloved, True Horror, True Ghost, Shocker, and Halimaw.
Another popular reading fare are the magazines. Of the 38 magazines listed in the Media factbook, almost half are movie/fan magazines such as Gossip, Glitter, Kislap, Hot Copy, Rumors and Moviestars.
The Good News
Perhaps because it gives priority on its watchdog function, newspaper content tends to be dominated by government issues and events, inevitably involving government officials a.k.a. politicians. This has resulted in frequent misunderstanding between the “rulers” and the fourth estate. Government officials often criticize newspapers for inaccurate and sloppy reporting and even for having a “hidden agenda,” leading to the filing of multi-million libel cases against editors and journalists. One major daily experienced advertising pullout by advertisers sympathetic to a top national official who feel aggrieved by the negative coverage he gets from the newspaper. The press regard negative reportage as part of their “watchdog function” and consider libel suits (and ad boycott) as serious threats to press freedom.
Newspaper pages have served as an effective forum for dialogue (and even debate) on national and local issues — constitutional amendments or cha cha, Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), death penalty , among others. It has succeeded in ventilating local issues into national consciousness such as the agrarian problem of farmers from Sumilao and other places. Another good news is the increasing number of investigative stories focusing on diverse issues — graft and corruption in government (and business), environment, human rights, agrarian and urban land reform, and the Marcos hidden wealth. Many of these articles had led to investigations by Congress and other appropriate government agencies. Investigative stories have significantly enhanced transparency in governance and may have reduced if not prevented abuses and corruption. Many of these stories are being written by journalists from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.
Business and economics is given adequate coverage it deserves. Many major business stories are given front page treatment while business sections of most newspapers have been expanded both in terms of additional pages and topics. Business stories are not only limited to news but now carry features (including personalities), in-depth articles and in some newspapers, even corporate “gossips.”
Likewise, there have been significant improvements in the coverage of science and technology, agriculture, education, health and similar topics. Many newspapers provide at least a page (or section) on these topics once a week. The major dailies now have a weekly information technology (IT) page.
Although our so-called national dailies are still Manila-centric in terms of content, there are now serious efforts to feature more diverse stories from the regions beyond the traditional natural and man-made calamities. Sections or pages are devoted to human interest stories from various regions of Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. Some major dailies such as the Philippine Daily Inquirer has set up a full-time news bureau in major regions throughout the country .
If our pages have improved in terms of their contents and appearances, this can be partly attributed to continuing efforts towards professionalism in the industry. These efforts can come from professional organizations and the academe. The Philippine Press Institute (PPI) conducts about a dozen training courses each year on various aspects of newspaper publication — editorial, management, and ethics. It also sponsors the annual Community Press Awards which recognizes excellence among provincial newspapers. The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility focuses on the upgrading of professionalism and responsibility of media workers through workshops and publications. In addition to offering graduate degrees in journalism and communication management, the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication (AIJC) conducts short-term training, media research, policy advocacy, and publications.
There are over 100 communication departments/colleges nationwide which provide a ready source for media practitioners. However, the quality of their curriculum, and therefore their graduates, may need improvement, a task which requires partnership and support from the industry.
And Some Bad News
A common complaint against the press is its alleged tendency to sensationalize and to focus on or foment conflict situations. Sensationalism is defined as exaggerating an non-issue/event or a “minor” one so as to create a startling or scandalous effect.
Critics say that the press resort to this unwritten “editorial policy” in order to “sell” or increase circulation and of course, attract more advertisers.
A related concern is the lack of follow-up stories. Newspapers (and media in general) do not display the same tenacity that can uncover a Watergate scandal. Journalists have such short memories that there is little or no follow-through of heretofore major stories.
Journalists themselves acknowledge that one of their serious problems is “envelopmental journalism” practiced by some of their colleagues. This refers to envelopes with some money distributed to journalists in return for a favor — a positive media coverage or an end to negative publicity. Some unscrupulous journalists have shifted to ATM cards to make the transaction less obvious.
The Philippine Press Institute (PPI) has adopted the Journalists Code of Ethics. The Code provides, among others that the journalists must “adhere to scrupulous” reporting or interpretation of news, not to suppress essential facts or distort the trust by improper omission or emphasis.” But adherence to the Code is voluntary and at best imposed through the ombudsman and press council system. There is a need to improve the mechanisms for both.
The other issues often raised focused on the quality of newspaper coverage of specific sectors — women, children, cultural communities, among others.
Women and child rights advocates have noted a significant increase in the coverage of women’s and children’s issues over the past decade. While this has succeeded in integrating such issues into the mainstream of national agenda, they also lament the tendency of mass media, including newspapers, to prefer stories which easily lend to a sensational and controversial slant — child abuse, prostitution, child labor, and similar stories. On the other hand, equally important but less controversial stories on malnutrition, lack of access to pre-school and primary health care still need wider and more sustained coverage.
A related concern is the quality of coverage on women as they are portrayed as weaker sex and sex objects. Tabloids have been singled out for splashing scantily-dressed “starlets” in provocative poses in their front pages as a marketing strategy. Respect for privacy and dignity of women and children have often been raised, especially in abuse cases. A Guideline on the Coverage of Crimes Against Women and Minors prepared by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility has been distributed to newspapers to help ensure a more gender-sensitive newspaper reporting. Likewise, the Department of Justice prepared a Guideline for Media Coverage of Children.
Although regional news stories have increased, media coverage of the country’s 120 ethnic groups and cultural communities are still wanting. The limited coverage tend to focus on conflict situations (tribal wars), calamities, drought and hunger, etc. Stories about their way of life is almost nil although there is a continuing attempt at preservation of their dances, songs and ethnographic materials. The more “visible” cultural communities like the Igorots and various Muslim tribes are most apt to be stereotyped (e.g. tattooed Igorots and fierce-tempered Muslim tribes).
From the Underwood to Computer Age: Challenges for the Print Media
How are newspapers coping with the advent of new information technology? Most of our national dailies have integrated computers in their operations. Some are now automated — from news sourcing and gathering, editing, layout and design to production. Among the highly automated newspapers are Business World, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Manila Bulletin. Most of the daily newspapers are also on-line, reaching even people who would not normally read the printed page.
Using computers require continuing retooling among editors, journalists and the production people. Some jobs may eventually have to be phased out as machines take over the work to be done e.g. paste up. Some veteran journalists admit difficulty in adjusting as they miss the sounds of the typewriters. But even some new journalism graduates are not fully equipped with the tools of the computer age. Many journalism departments or schools lack electronic laboratories to prepare their students with desktop editorial skills.
Many provincial newspapers are still in the “Underwood (or Remington) age.” Only the bigger provincial dailies such as the Sun Star chain, The Freeman, Visayan Daily Star, to name a few, have access to more advanced technologies.
Will newspapers be eventually replaced by television and other new media (e.g., cable TV and Internet) as main source of news?
Not necessarily, according to the World Trends in the Newspaper Industry as reported in a national daily recently. The report noted that newspapers have a number of advantages: (1) strong relationship with readers and advertisers, and (2) high degree of credibility. Online services are regarded not as replacement but as a supplement to newspapers.
Even the threat of advertisers transferring to the web is still quite remote in the Philippines considering the small population of Internet users in the Philippines. It is estimated that our Internet base user is only 80,000 with a possible multiplying factor of four. This brings the total Internet user base to 320,000. However, the annual growth rate of Internet users is at 30 percent.
But the newspaper industry will continue to compete with television, cable TV, radio and other media channels for advertising revenue. This would require more creative news packaging amidst threats of declining readers in favor of the visual media.
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Ramon R. Tuazon is the vice president of the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication (AIJC) and president of the Philippine Association of Communication Educators (PACE). Among the more than 20 publications he has co-authored/co-edited are: Megatrends: The Future of Filipino Children (1998), A Handbook for Frontline Advocates of Children’s Rights (1997), How Social Mobilization Works: The Philippine Experience (1996), Jose Luna Castro’s Handbook on Journalism (1990).