LETTERS FROM DAVAO

By Jun Ledesma

THE declaration of Martial Law in 1972 ended the era of the freest press in Asia and maybe the world over. Almost all the critical media establishments folded up including community publications and broadcast stations and sent thousands of journalists and office staff workers jobless.  Also locked down was the Philippines News Service, an outfit organized by the major dailies that supply news not only among the member publications but to broadcast media. PNS also catered to foreign media establishments. 

Let me rewind back in history and beg my readers' forgiveness in some lapses I may commit and miss. 

The initial move of the dictatorship was the creation of the Department of Public Information. Francisco “Kit” Tatad was installed as head and became the sole spokesman of Malacanang Palace.  The media industry was placed under the Mass Media Committee of the Office of Civil Relations jointly supervised by the military and the Philippine Constabulary.  MMC decides on the accreditation of domestic and foreign media practitioners and outfits. In a quick transition, however, following criticism from foreign journalists,  Pres. Ferdinand Marcos set up the Media Advisory Council (MAC) that was to be headed by Primitivo Mijares. MAC lorded it over print and broadcast media. Mijares decides who is to be authorized to operate. He was like a one-man censor and was given a wide range of power which, according to Tatad,  was flagrantly abused. 

MAC was consequently dissolved and its function was later subsumed by the Philippine Council for Print Media while TV and radio under Broadcast Media Council more popularly known as Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas. To sum it up DPI was placed by Marcos as the controlling agency of mass media. DPI had regional offices nationwide.  It was on March 1, 1973, that the Philippines News Agency was organized, and while it became a government news service it operated almost independently as this was manned by professional journalists. 

The overthrow of the dictatorial regime in 1986 brought radical changes in government information. Corazon Aquino, shortly after the takeover, named Rene Saguisag as the Presidential Spokesman and Teddy Locsin, Jr. as Minister of DPI.  It was at this time when the National Media Production Center was reorganized and became Public Information Agency.  The Philippine News Agency on the other hand continued to exist but this time manned by equally competent journalists, headed by  Joe Pavia, who lost their jobs when Martial Law was declared. PNS and PNA correspondents nationwide continued to be the main contributors of news, feature stories, and photos. It was a different story however for the President’s Spokesman and Press Secretary. Later after the passage of the 1987 Constitution President Cory resuscitated the Office of the Press Secretary and appointed Agence France Press bureau head Teddy Benigno for the post.  

From then on the Office of the Press Secretary and Presidential Spokesperson were either scrapped, altered, or revived. The ones that withstood the test of time and the vagaries of politics were the Philippine Information Agency and the Philippines News Agency. 

I have spanned all the decades, the specter that transpired during the martial law regime and transitions of powers and idiosyncrasies of each of those who preside over our country.  My first crack at journalism was to write for PNS.  Three weeks after I was drafted as “Stringer” my story landed as the headline of the Philippines Herald. The lull following the declaration of Martial Law prodded me to look for another job. By a quirk of fate Kerima Tuvera, publisher of various publications offered me a dream of a lifetime: write a column on her prestigious Evening Post.  That was good while it lasted for in 1986 she decided to quit publishing. Writing for PNA later became an avocation because of the pressure of work. But just when I thought it was over with me as a community journalist, I was invited by Sun Star Davao to write a column. 

When  Davao City Mayor Rodrigo R. Duterte became President he ushered in new changes in the information arm of the government.  A Presidential Communication Group was established that defined the role of the Presidential Spokesperson (Sec Harry Roque) and the Presidential Communications Operations Office headed by Sec. Martin Andanar. Andanar was given the task to make a radical transformation in the communications assets of the government starting with the PTV and Radyo ng Bayan, the  News and Information Bureau (NIB) that includes the Philippine News Agency and the Philippine Information Agency.

Early on President Duterte,  who had wanted a Freedom of Information law in place, encouraged the government-run media to exercise freedom in carrying their mandate.  As I see it now all the agencies under PCOO are up to their tasks and I am proud that PNA has become a treasure trove of vital updates on government performance. It has become the veritable news service agency of the government. 

Knowing President Duterte up close while he was Mayor of Davao for 23 years, he had always been an advocate of a free press. On not a few occasions he would prod the media to expose irregularities and other malfeasance, inefficiency, and conduct of government officials. When Dir. Virginia Arcilla-Agtay of NIB invited me to write a column for PNA I accepted the new challenge knowing exactly what the Mayor-President expects from me and my perspective as a Mindanaoan. 

To the Philippine News Agency workforce, Happy Anniversary and keep up the excellent work! 

About the Columnist

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Mr. Jun Ledesma is a community journalist who writes from Davao City and comments from the perspective of a Mindanaoan.