Thursday, March 2, 2006

When media women fought back

The present government that is tinkering with media freedom should learn a few lessons from the 1983 case of women journalists versus military officers filed before the Supreme Court.

The military’s dreaded and intimidating moves at that time against seven women journalists, including myself, may have created a temporary chilling effect but it did not prevent us from making bold moves to make sure it was not going to be done ever again to us or to anyone.

On Feb. 1, 1983, braving martial rule, 23 of us women writers and six male colleagues filed a ``petition for prohibition with preliminary injunction’’ with the Supreme Court. This was to stop the military’s National Intelligence Board (NIB) Special Committee No. 2 from harassing media practitioners and violating our right to freedom of expression and right to remain silent.

Named respondents were retired Brig. Gen. Wilfredo Estrada, Colonels Renato Ecarma, Balbino Diego, Galileo Kintanar, Hermogenes Peralta, Vicente Tigas, Maj. Eleanor Bernardino and NBI Asst. Director Ponciano Fernando—all of NIB No. 2.

A sudden creation of the dreaded Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Fabian Ver, the NIB was composed of high-ranking military officials tasked to ``invite’’ and interrogate the women journalists whom they thought had written unflattering and damaging articles against the Marcos dictatorship.

Those invited for questioning were Arlene Babst, Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon, Ninez Cacho-Olivares, Lorna Kalaw-Tirol, Domini Torrevillas-Suarez, Eggie Apostol and myself. Jo-Anne, Domini, Lorna and I were then writing for the Panorama Magazine while Ninez and Arlene were columnists of the Bulettin Today. Tita Eggie was publisher of Mr. & Ms. Magazine.

The military invitation asked us to appear before the NIB in order to ``to shed light on confidential matters being looked into by this committee.’’ The last paragraph threatened: ``Your failure to appear on a specified date and place shall be considered as waiver on your part and this committee will be constrained to proceed in accordance with law.’’

We were interrogated one at a time by a group composed mostly of military officers. The closed-door interrogations were done at a Fort Bonifacio hall and lasted for hours at a time. We were questioned about our motives for writing, writing fees, even our religious faith and upbringing. The military tried to cast aspersions on our motives and to link us to subversive elements.

I was questioned on my magazine feature article on military abuses in Bataan, Maglipon was questioned on her article on military abuses in Mindanao. This was the second interrogation for me, having been previously made to appear, interrogated and chastised (in a packed open hall) by Deputy Defense Secretary Carmelo Barbero on another magazine article about a Kalinga chief killed by soldiers.

(The ``subversive’’ articles, excerpts of the proceedings and other pertinent details are in ``Philippine Press Under Siege’’ Vols. 1 and 2.)

Refusing to be intimidated, we banded together and called on our media colleagues. Twenty eight journalists—23 women and five men—aided by 13 lawyers led by former senator Lorenzo Tanada, Joker Arroyo and law professor Perfecto Fernandez—went to the SC to put a stop to the intimidating interrogations.

Here are excerpts from our arguments. (Pardon the legalese.)``(The military) interrogations imposed prior restraint…in violation of constitutional guarantees on freedom expression; in the course of said interrogations, (the military) respondents communicated emphatically to the petitioners questioned by them, the publications that are objectionable, with specification of the subjects, manner of presentation, and tenor of language, that respondents disapprove of, thereby imposing guidelines and norms to be adhered to by (media) petitioners, apart from and in addition to the norms prescribed by law.’’

We further argued that the interrogations created a climate of fear and a chilling effect on the practice of journalism. We added that this could result in `` curtailment of the free flow of information and opinion, indispensable to the fundamental right of the people to know all matters of public concern’’ guaranteed in the Constitution.

``Political liberty is thus jeopardized, for…the foundation of intelligent political decisions by the people, in the exercise of their right to self-government, is free access to knowledge or information relevant to the matters for decision.’’

The interrogations also ``constituted unlawful incursions or intrusions into spheres of individual liberty and free choice, in violation of constitutional guarantees in the Bill of Rights…’’

Arguing for the government, Solicitor Estelito Mendoza tried to play things down by declaring that the petition was ``moot and academic’’ as Estrada had ordered that the NIB No. 2 be terminated as he ``was satisfied with the results.’’

Mendoza poo-poohed our complaint by saying ``all that has taken place is plain conversation, interchange of ideas, opinions, perhaps biases and preferences. But there is no charge against, nor any complaint of whatever nature involving the petitioners.’’ Oh yeah?

A few months later, editor Torrevillas-Suarez and I faced a P10-million libel suit filed by Brig. Gen. Artemio Tadiar who claimed he was maligned but who was not even mentioned in my Bataan article. We had a battery of lawyers, among them, Joker Arroyo, Saklolo Leano and Rene Saguisag. The case was dropped in 1986.)
The Marcos military was not about to back off. But the media women were bold, if not as bold as ever, helping set the stage for the dictatorship’s eventual downfall.#