“People will always demand to know the truth; they will eventually get it from whatever sources, by whatever means.”

Crispin C. Maslog is a senior consultant, Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication and Chair of the Board, Asian Media Information and Communication Center (AMIC) based in Manila.

Remembering the People Power Revolution

In February 2016, the Philippines celebrated the 30th anniversary of the People Power Revolution that ended the dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos. Millions of Filipinos marched along the main artery of Metro Manila, Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA). Crispin Maslog, a former journalist with Agence France-Presse, was director, Silliman School of Journalism and Communication when Martial Law was proclaimed in 1972. He was professor of development communication at University of Philippines Los Banos when the People Power Revolution broke out in 1986. He explains its significance in this interview with Media Asia editor Cherian George.

CHERIAN GEORGE:

You have spent some time this year on the lecture circuit, talking to younger Filipinos about the 1986 People Power Revolution. Why did you feel that this was an important task?

CRISPIN MASLOG:

It started gradually, I guess, when I began to realise that I was getting older, and my students were getting younger. When I started talking to college students about the abuses during the 1972 Martial Law and what I personally did during the 1986 People Power Revolution they gave me blank stares at first. Then I asked them how old they were, and I realized they were not yet born when I marched down EDSA 30 years ago to protest against Marcos Martial Law!

CG:

Take us back to the Martial Law period. How did Marcos justify suspending the Constitution?

CM:

Before Martial Law was proclaimed in 1972, the Philippines went through hard times under Marcos’ two four-year terms from 1965 to 1973—the years of discontent. There was a dramatic increase in poverty during Marcos’ two elective terms, resulting in social unrest.

The youth were taking to the streets to rally against military abuses and government corruption. The government clamped down on the mass media. The Philippine Communist Party was getting mass support. Marcos cracked down on his political enemies and the mass media, blaming the Communists for the crisis. The Communist New People’s Army was getting stronger. Besides, Marcos also wanted to extend his term, which he could not do legally because he was limited by the Constitution to two presidential terms ending in 1972. So Marcos decided to suspend the Constitution and declare Martial Law on September 21, 1972. He justified Martial Law by saying it was to save the country from a Communist takeover.

CG:

What did Martial Law mean for the media and for academia?

CM:

In the first few days of Martial Law, Marcos jailed his critics, led by then Senators and arch critics Benigno Aquino Jr. and Ramon Diokno, and the top Manila journalists—Manila Times publisher Joaquin “Chino” Roces and his top columnist, Max Soliven; Manila Chronicle publisher Eugenio “Geny” Lopez and his editor Amando Doronila; Philippines Free publisher-editor Teodoro M. Locsin and his top staff writer, Napoleon Rama; and Press Foundation of Asia joint executive Juan L. Mercado. That meant effectively that freedom of expression was suspended and mass media and we in academe could not criticize the government.

CG:

I assume that although there was a clampdown on dissent, Filipinos still found ways to continue critical discussions, perhaps underground? How did you, your colleagues and your students try to maintain some level of critical discourse?

CM:

In the early days of Martial Law letters were smuggled in and out of the country through friends. For example, journalist Juan Mercado used to send messages through his numerous friends in the foreign media and diplomatic service. In Silliman University, where I worked at the time, students literally had an underground operation—they met regularly at the basement of the Silliman Church to exchange information.

The Marcos dictatorship, I must say, was not in the image of the rigid Communist dictatorships like Russia and East Germany at the time. It was a benign dictatorship. One could speak in whispers to friends about military abuses without being picked up the next day. There was no organized spy apparatus.

We in academe did not touch political subjects in class out of an abundance of caution, because my university was under a special watch list. Silliman University was a hotbed of student activism before Martial Law and my office was raided by the military two days after the proclamation. I was on a national watch list of people not allowed to leave the country at the time.

CG:

And what about the media?

CM:

There was no regular underground press that appeared. Martial Law did not last that long. Only a couple of years after the proclamation an above-ground critical press appeared and was dubbed the “mosquito press” because their reports were compared to the irritating bites of mosquitoes in the dark. They carried stories on graft and corruption in government and big crime stories. But no criticisms of the Marcos family were allowed. That was the unwritten rule. Jose Burgos was a pioneer in testing the limits of press freedom under Martial Law when he published the We Forum. He was joined by the Philippine Collegian published by University of the Philippines students.

CG:

Marcos seems to have been adept at propaganda. How important was image to him, and how did he attempt to control the public mind?

CM:

Marcos was a brilliant lawyer and a charismatic public speaker. In his younger days he mesmerised his audiences with his stentorian voice, including me as a young, idealistic, college student. Would you believe I voted for him when he ran for reelection in 1969? I thought that since it would be his second and last term, he would be an honest statesman and leave a name for posterity. But I was wrong! After Martial Law, it was easy for him to control the public mind. He said the mass media had to help the government move the country to a “new society” that was progressive like Singapore. The difference was that the Singapore dictator was honest and Marcos was the opposite.

CG:

Despite his best attempts, it turned out that Filipinos had a mind of their own. How did people resist?

CM:

The first few years under Martial Law were peaceful and orderly. The average person liked that people were disciplined. But people were disciplined because they were afraid. And soon after 1972, Marcos and his family became more corrupt because no one, especially the mass media, was free to criticise them. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The next 14 years witnessed corruption unparalleled in Philippine history.

As the abuses became more flagrant people protested. Many activists were apprehended and tortured by the Marcos military. The final straw that led to People Power was the assassination of Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. as he came down from the plane at the Manila International Airport on August 21, 1983. He was allowed to go to the U.S. a few years earlier to have a heart bypass operation. After the operation he decided to come back against the wishes of Marcos—and was killed.

An estimated three to four million Filipinos joined his 11-hour funeral procession. Shortly after that the street protests accelerated. Massive demonstrations forced Marcos to call for a general election to prove that the people were still behind him.

Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino’s widow, Corazon C. Aquino, ran (stood) for election as President against Marcos. She won overwhelmingly but the Marcos-controlled Congress proclaimed Marcos the winner. This led to massive protests until Armed Forces Chief Fidel V. Ramos and Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile resigned from the Marcos Cabinet. People rallied to their side—and the rest is history, as they say.

CG:

The subsequent People Power revolution, known as EDSA II, was famous for its use of SMS text messaging. What about EDSA I? What was the revolutionary medium of choice?

CM:

It is true that EDSA II, which ousted another corrupt Philippine President Joseph Estrada in 2001, was facilitated by the Internet and the cell phone (calls and text messaging). EDSA I, on the other hand, was powered mainly by radio, particularly the Church-run Radio Veritas, and television. Print media played a supporting role, enhanced by photocopying machines (giving rise to the term Xerox journalism, which multiplied the newspapers from Manila and abroad to feed to a public hungry for information).

CG:

Would it be correct to say that some of the flaws of Philippine politics that we associate with Marcos survived the revolution? Crony capitalism and corruption, for example?

CM:

Unfortunately, yes! After two relatively honest Presidents after People Power I in 1986 (Presidents Cory Aquino and Fidel V. Ramos) there followed two corrupt Presidents (Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo) until the present President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, the son of the martyr Benigno Aquino Jr. and Cory Aquino. He has been honest and untainted with corruption. His term ends this year. But crony capitalism is not as rampant and organised as it was under Marcos.

CG:

Another aspect the Marcos era was charismatic leadership. Is that still a feature of political communication in the Philippines?

CM:

After Ferdinand Marcos and Benigno Aquino Jr., who could move crowds with their eloquence, we seem to have moved away from persuasion by personal charisma. Among the present national leaders not one is eloquent and charismatic. It seems that mass media and now social media have overshadowed the importance of interpersonal communication in politics.

CG:

What about strongmen? Around the world, if we look at India, Russia and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, it seems that many citizens of democracies are drawn to leaders with an authoritarian streak, who promise to get things done without too much regard to law and human rights. Do you think the Philippines learnt from the Marcos experience to stay clear of such politicians?

CM:

Unfortunately the average older Filipino has not learned from the Marcos experience. On the other hand, the under-40 generation does not have a memory of the experience. It will take time to educate people about the virtues and advantages of a democracy.

Today we have national elections, and the most popular candidate at the moment is a guy named Duterte who was accused of extrajudicial killings of criminals when he was mayor of Davao City in southern Philippines. On the campaign trail today, he promises strong-armed tactics against drug pushers and other criminals and to rid the country of crime in six months if elected—and the people believe him! My God!

CG:

National anniversaries are often politicised. The way they are observed says as much about the current times as they do about the event being remembered. What are the present-day concerns and interests that have shaped the commemoration of People Power? What do different groups gain or lose from the anniversary?

CM:

The EDSA 1986 Revolution anniversaries started being observed with passion and without politics in the early years during the Cory Aquino presidency. Later it became somewhat politicised, but that was not the problem. The problem was that people lost interest, as the EDSA revolutionaries got older and the younger generation did not know the experience. This year the organizers came up with a new idea—an experiential museum of EDSA 1986 which dramatized the happening and the viewers experienced as if they were part of a movie. The EDSA Revolution anniversary planning committee plans to make the museum permanent.

CG:

Marcos’s son, Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr, is trying to whitewash his father’s legacy. Will he succeed?

CM:

Over my dead body! There is clear and present danger that he might succeed, because of his youthful charisma which appeals to the young voters. So he might succeed if good men do nothing! That is why I have taken it as a personal advocacy to go around and tell the milennials about Marcos Martial Law. There are now various organised groups belatedly recognising the danger and campaigning against Bong Bong Marcos, as he is popularly known. And the Aquino administration has also campaigned against him.

CG:

How do you think media educators can best honour the People Power Revolution? What are the abiding lessons to be drawn from that period of Philippine history?

CM:

There are a few lessons from Martial Law history that bear repeating. First, when news is censored in an authoritarian society, rumors and gossip will proliferate because people become starved for information.

Second, when the mass media are muzzled, there is no check to government abuse, and graft and corruption becomes rampant.

Third, when the press is gagged, it deteriorates. Journalists lose their initiative in gathering and commenting on the news; they lose their self-respect; and in the long run, the press loses credibility. And without credibility, the press is lost.

Fourth, when a government tries to hide the truth, it may succeed at first. But in the long run, the truth will come out from other sources. When that happens, people will lose their trust in government. And when the government loses credibility, everything is lost.

Fifth, with the rise of modern communication technology—like the photocopying machines and video cassettes in 1986, and the Internet and cell phones in 2007, and smart phones today—it is no longer possible for any government, however authoritarian, to impose complete or near complete censorship.

Sixth, people will always demand to know the truth; they will eventually get it from whatever sources, by whatever means. And then the truth will set them free.

Finally, we Philippine mass media and media educators need to keep reminding our millennials that the press freedom they enjoy today is not free. Their parents fought for it, and they should not take it for granted.

We also need to remind them of the ancient Chinese saying: To forget one’s ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without roots. Translation: a people who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat it.