Thursday, May 3, 2007

Under siege on World Press Freedom Day

It’s World Press Freedom Day today and the son of one of the country’s media icons is missing. Abduction is the most likely reason for the disappearance of Jonas “Jay Jay” Burgos who was reportedly seen being taken away by unidentified men at a mall. Who were they? Where have they taken him? Why?

I hope this column becomes stupid reading because Jason was found alive while I am writing this (yesterday). But this is not the case right now while I am emailing this to the Inquirer close to deadline time.

I’ve never used the press releases of those running for office but re-electionist Sen. Ralph Recto sent something well said, he could very well have said it for us, the members of the media (this is not a plug and I have not yet decided whether I will vote for him):

“The country owes the Burgos family a great deal of gratitude for the freedom it enjoys today (and) it should repay their valor by finding a missing kin. We cannot let the son of a great man who helped give us back our democracy be a victim of undemocratic methods his father strongly raged against. During dangerous times his father did not disappear for teaching us about freedom so why should his son go missing for simply teaching some folks about farming in these supposedly normal times?”

Did Jason’s abductors know he was the son of a media brave, a crusading journalist who suffered imprisonment and harassment so that we could enjoy our freedoms today? The late Jose “Jose” Burgos, Jr. put his life, family and modest fortune on the line when he published “We Forum” and, later, “Malaya” toward the end of the martial law years. His efforts certainly paid off when the Marcos dictatorship came crumbling down, with a lot of credit going to the so-called mosquito or alternative press that Joe was part of.

Today, let us remember Joe and pray for his missing son. At 5:30 late this afternoon, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines will lead a candle lighting ceremony at the Boys’ Scout Circle on Timog Ave. There will be no speeches, only reading of poetry on press freedom. Come and join, you do not have to be a member of the media.

This is a tribute to the journalists who were killed in the line of duty—88 since 1986 when our freedoms were supposed to have been restored.

Joe died two years ago after a lingering illness. He may not have died a martyr but he gave much from the substance of his life. His name is now engraved on the Wall of Remembrance of the Bantayog ng mga Bayani (Monument for Heroes) that honors those who lived and died so that we could gain back our freedoms. The International Press Institute named Joe one of the world’s 50 Press Freedom Heroes of the 20th Century.

Today, as I go over the two slim volumes of “Press Freedom Under Siege”, I am filled with nostalgia for those days when boldness in media meant reaping results, not attracting bullets which is the case these days.
One of the pieces is by human rights lawyer Joker P. Arroyo (a senator now running for reelection) who was my defense lawyer then. He wrote about Joe’s woes: “Dec. 1982 was a chilling month for media. In a twin move, the government attempted to intimidate and hamstrung the press. On Dec. 8, ‘We Forum’ was shut down when military intelligence units stopped the opposition newspaper’s presses, sequestered all its moveable equipment, vehicles and papers, and padlocked its offices. Editor Jose Burgos, Jr. was arrested, detained, along with his staff and columnists. Even members of his production and circulation departments were hauled to jail.

“A week after, the National Intelligence Board, the country’s highest intelligence body, summoned one after another, eight women journalists for interrogation at the forbidding grounds of an army camp…”

A lecture delivered by the revered former Sen. Jose W. Diokno to writers is also included in “Press Freedom Under Siege”. This should be read by today’s aspiring journalists. Spoke he:

“How, you may well ask, can we take those risks? In today’s climate of fear, how can we afford to face those dangers?

“The answer, I suggest, is that it is precisely because of the climate of fear that we cannot afford not to face those dangers. We must damn the risks, and in a sense emulating our Moslem juramentados, say what must be said, and suffer the consequences. The alternative is to be, in Rizal’s words, ‘always running after butterflies and flowers’ (“El Filibusterismo”) and to die not only “without seeing the dawn break over our country” (“Noli Me Tangere”) but knowing that we have held back the dawn. Writers can lay down their pens and tear up their manuscripts but I know of no human—and writers are nothing if they are not human—who can completely silence his conscience.

“If your task is as dangerous as was Rizal’s it is more difficult for at least two reasons. One is that today, the enemy is not as concrete, nor as obvious as the friar was…The second difficulty lies in the clash of ideology that characterizes our situation. In Rizal’s time, the conflict was clear-cut: self-determination against imperialism…

“But I do have but one request—which you are free to disregard:…use a language that our people understand, not only with their minds but with their souls…please write for the people, not the elite, the people of whom Elias said:

“’The people do not complain because they have no voice; they do not move because they are in a stupor; and you say that they do not suffer because you have not seen how their hearts bleed. But someday, you will see and hear!’” (Noli Me Tangere).