Thursday, November 8, 2007

Rock and refuge: NPC then

It was our rock and refuge. It was our sanctuary during the dying days of martial rule. That was the National Press Club for us in the early 1980s. Many of us were greenhorns in journalism then, upstart freelancers from the so-called mosquito press (okay, alternative, and sometimes underground--and underwater if you were the “Ichthys” type) who made bold forays into the mainstream media and were continually at odds with the Marcos military. Hunted, surveilled, “invited”, manacled and thrown into jail.

Standing tall by the banks of the Pasig River was the NPC which was founded and built by the generation of journalists before ours, a good number of whom bore the brunt of military fury when the reign of terror began in 1972. The founders did not build the NPC in the 1950s for the purpose that served us in the 1980s. It was supposed to be a club, a watering hole for the old boys who wanted to unwind after a day’s work at the editorial office or on the beat. Not long after, the culturati and the literati also made it their haunt.

Vicente Manasala’s mural on lawanit in the dining hall gave it ambience. The mural (gone and sold I don’t know where) withstood the smoke, grime and slime from overbearing journalists who thought the masterpiece was their birthright.

But when darkness descended on the media in 1972 and caught many of them off guard, the NPC began to get transformed from a happy-hour place into a fortress. It was no longer just a watering hole but also a gathering hall for those who valued press freedom.

In the 1980s, it was our upstart generation’s turn to flock to the place and turn it into our refuge and sanctuary. The Plaridel Hall (named after hero Marcelo H. del Pilar) on the third floor was a favorite venue, not just of journalists, but also of those from other sectors (labor, church, students, urban poor, civil society) who wanted to say something loud and subversive.

I have kept two embroidered NPC patches with the words “Don’t shoot journalists.” That was when journalists were considered endangered species. (We are again endangered now). We wore them on our sleeves, lapels and breast pockets. I wanted to wear them again recently but the year on them would make me look dated indeed.

But what other activities, aside from forums and discussions, did journalists plot and hatch at the NPC during those martial law days?

We did books! And I have copies of those books. We did “Press Freedom Under Siege” Volume 1 (1984) and Volume 2 (1985). It was the Women Writers in Media Now (Women) that poured a lot into these books. I remember staying late up to NPC’s closing time with Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon and Noree A. Briscoe so we could finish the book on time. We called ourselves the NPC’s Committee to Protect Writers’ Rights (writers’ warts, we told ourselves). Bogie Tence-Ruiz did the art work on the covers—a typewriter with barbed wire for keys for the first volume and a mock-up of a censored manuscript of a human rights story for the second volume.

We thought we had it all done well but when the finished product came out, we saw that the spelling of the word siege on the book spine was “siege”. That was a most important word and it was misspelled! It became a collector’s item.

We thought one volume would be enough but when the repression continued we had to come out with another volume. NPC president Antonio Ma. Nieva and We Forum (later Malaya) publisher and editor Jose Burgos had just emerged from the military stockade.

The articles (essays, investigative stories, column pieces) in the two volumes were those that got journalists into trouble with the powers-that-be plus pieces from great thinkers and doers who understood the role of the press. Military interrogation transcripts (as recalled) were also included.

There was another book that emerged from the NPC. It contained the proceedings of one of the no-holds-barred discussion on press censorship. I have it in my bookshelf but I couldn’t find it fast enough for now. A slew of books, theses and doctoral dissertations (I know one by an American journalist) on press freedom and how Filipino journalists fared and fought came out of this dreadful area. It was indeed a time of grit of grace.

Now a great furor continues to swirl around the National Press Club because of its officers’ decision to edit and censor its newly commissioned mural on press freedom without the knowledge and permission of the Neo-Angono artists that did it. It was an Inquirer banner story that shocked us all.

I don’t know when exactly and how NPC’s transmogrification into what it is now took place. I just know that the last time I was there, to borrow Conrad de Quiros’ recollection, was in the past century. That would be more than seven, 10 years ago. It must have been around that time that that my membership, and the membership of my women colleagues in media, ended.

It is not that we had outgrown the NPC. The NPC was just no longer what it used to be. We had moved on and there were other newer, more fearless media groups that suited our tempers and temperament.
The fire had not died. We had not changed. The NPC that our fearless, upstart generation knew had changed.


If you need vegetable seeds, go to the Bureau of Plants in San Andres, Manila (near the fruit market). Plenty and cheap. You could get a free illustrated book on vegetable gardening in Filipino by agriculture experts if you could prove you’re serious about food production and food security for the poor.