By Severino C. Samonte

As the year of the Rabbit 2023 began, I looked back at the year 1973 to reminisce on the infancy of the Philippine News Agency (PNA) which was organized as the government's official newswire service 50 years ago.

The then martial law born-PNA, which is celebrating its golden anniversary on March 1, was created in 1973 through a special order by the Department of Public Information (DPI) Secretary and later on Senator Francisco S. Tatad. It was established as the news division of the DPI's former Bureau of National and Foreign Information (BNFI).

The news agency actually replaced the 22-year-old Philippine News Service (PNS), the country's first privately-owned news agency set up in October 1950 by the then leading national newspapers in Manila, namely: The Manila Times-Mirror-Taliba, Manila Chronicle, Manila Bulletin, Philippines Herald, Evening News, Bagong Buhay and Fookien Times.

By the way, the main function of PNS was to supply daily news and photos from the provinces to these newspapers as well as to those in the provinces. Radio and television stations also used the PNS stories for a fixed monthly fee or subscription.

Foreign news agencies, such as the Associated Press (AP), United Press International (UPI), Reuters and Agence France-Presse (AFP) and a few private entities were also allowed to subscribe.

Through the old mail system (using stamps and envelopes), it also maintained a news exchange agreement with foreign news agencies such as Antara of Indonesia, Bernama of Malaysia, Kyodo of Japan, Yonhap of South Korea, Central News Agency of Taiwan, and Tass News Agency of the former Soviet Union, among several others.

When President Ferdinand E. Marcos Sr. declared a nationwide state of martial law under Proclamation 1081 on Sept. 21, 1972, PNS was forced to cease its 24-hour daily operations since its major clients -- newspapers, radio, and TV stations -- were padlocked and guarded by government troops. At the time of its closure, PNS had some 120 news correspondents from all provinces and cities of the country.

About four months after the imposition of martial law and shortly after Marcos allowed a handful of newspapers and broadcast stations to reopen, a group of former newspaper editors asked Secretary Tatad to explore the possibility of opening a government news agency by acquiring the World War II-vintage teletype machines and other equipment of the PNS.

The group’s request to once again set up an even more dynamic wire news agency bore fruit when PNS was allowed to reopen but under a new name -- Philippine News Agency (PNA) as the government’s official news outfit.

Negotiations for the acquisition of the PNS equipment were done by a group of former newspapermen from Tatad’s office at Malacañang, including the late BNFI Director Lorenzo J. Cruz and Press Undersecretary Amante Bigornia.

The government payment for the old PNS teletype machines, typewriters, mimeographing machines and a photo darkroom plus few cameras was used to pay the delayed salaries of the PNS staff in Manila from September to December 1972.

The late Jose L. Pavia, former executive editor of the defunct Philippines Herald, was appointed as the first general manager of the infant news agency. He headed its initial 11-member staff, with the late Renato B. Tiangco, also formerly of the Herald and a foreign news agency wireman as managing editor; and this writer, a holdover from the PNS, as national and provincial news editor at the same time.

PNA initially used the editorial offices vacated by the PNS on the second floor of the National Press Club of the Philippines Bldg. along Magallanes Drive in Intramuros, Manila.

The first PNA correspondents were chosen from among the former PNS stringers covering the country’s then just 70 provinces and 60 cities.

At the outset, four PNA correspondents were assigned each to cover the then existing four Philippine Constabulary (PC) Zones in Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao. These were the 1st PC Zone in Camp Olivas, Pampanga; 2nd PC Zone in Camp Vicente Lim, Laguna; 3rd PC Zone in Cebu; and 4th PC Zone in Davao.

When Tatad turned on the switch to launch the PNA in the afternoon of March 1, 1973 in Malacañang, he said: “The Philippine News Agency will be operated in the best tradition of the world’s professional news agencies.”

Since PNA does not have its own building, it has transferred at least six times in the past 50 years. The first was from the NPC Bldg. to nearby UPL Bldg. in front of Fort Santiago (1978-1981); to Puyat Bldg. on Solana Street, also in Intramuros (1981-1983); Office of Media Affairs (OMA) on Bohol Avenue, Quezon City (1983-1987; back to the NPC Bldg. (1988-1996) and finally to its present site at the second floor of the Philippine Information Agency (PIA) Bldg. at the Media Center along Visayas Avenue in Diliman, Quezon City.

PNA also used to provide its subscribers daily broadcast news in English and Filipino languages as well as weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual news reports on major national developments.

In the early martial law years (1972-1981), PNA became a "gathering place of the best writers or media eagles" in what was then called Greater Manila Area (now Metropolitan Manila). That was because many of the best editors, deskmen, reporters, photographers and other staff members of the major newspapers and other media establishments shut down earlier by the government found employment in the PNA.

Some staff members of foreign news agencies with bureaus in Manila were also hired by the infant news agency. They returned to their mother bureaus when the government finally allowed the reopening of the closed media outlets.

On the other hand, PNA also became a good training ground for aspiring print and broadcast journalists. After the 1986 People Power Revolt, with the opening of new national newspapers, the PNA-trained young reporters tried their hands at newspapering and in the broadcast field. Many of them became editors and columnists in several national newspapers after they had cut their journalistic teeth at the PNA newsroom

Until early 1986, the PNA, through the former Office of Media Affairs (OMA) headed by the late Information Minister Gregorio S. Cendaña (RIP), had overseas bureaus in San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles (California), New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Toronto (Canada), Sydney (Australia) and Jeddah. These were closed down in 1986.

As part of the government reorganization in 1987 during the time of then President Corazon C. Aquino, the BNFI was abolished and replaced with two new bureaus -- the present-day News and Information Bureau (NIB) and the Bureau of Communications Services (BCS).

At present, PNA is a division of the NIB headed by Director Raymond Robert C. Burgos and Assistant Director Lee Ann L. Pattugalan. They are assisted by Executive Editor Demetrio B. Pisco Jr. and Deputy Executive Editor Luis A. Morente.

About the Columnist

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He began his journalistic career by contributing to the Liwayway and Bulaklak magazines in the 1960’s. He was the night editor of the Philippine News Service when Martial Law was declared in September 1972. When the Philippine News Agency was organized in March 1973, he was named national news editor because of his news wire service experience.

He retired as executive news editor in 2003. He also served as executive editor of the Malacanang-based Presidential News Desk from 1993 to 1996 and from 2005 to 2008.