Martial Law

How Marcos treated dissent: Punishing rumors and summoning reporters

Lian Buan

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How Marcos treated dissent: Punishing rumors and summoning reporters
(1st UPDATE) The late strongman Ferdinand Marcos signed a presidential decree that sought to jail ‘rumor mongers.’ It was repealed by Corazon Aquino.

MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte has barred Rappler reporter Pia Ranada from entering the Malacañang compound. 

To gauge the gravity of Duterte’s actions would be to compare him to how Philippine presidents in the past treated dissent, or more specifically, a critical press.

So far, Duterte’s style has been similar to Joseph Estrada’s. Estrada excluded Inquirer reporters from his media chats, though he didn’t bar them from Palace grounds like Duterte did Ranada.

Estrada orchestrated an advertising boycott against the Inquirer. Duterte is going after the Inquirer through the other businesses of their owners – the Prietos – first the Mile Long property, and just on Friday, February 23, Golden Donuts Inc through a P1-billion tax evasion complaint. The Prietos have sold their shares in the Inquirer to business tycoon Ramon Ang, Duterte’s campaign donor.

Estrada also caused the closure of the Manila Times, while Duterte’s government has so far revoked the registration of Rappler on grounds of alleged foreign ownership, which it has vehemently denied. Duterte has also threatened not to renew the franchise of TV network ABS-CBN.

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s husband Jose Miguel filed a total of 50 libel suits against 46 journalists. Corazon Aquino sued journalist Luis Beltran also of libel for writing that the first woman president hid under the bed during one mutiny in August 1987.

These are all post-martial law presidential styles of dealing with the media. But how did Ferdinand Marcos do it?

P.D No. 90

Four months after proclaiming Martial Law, Marcos signed on January 6, 1973, Presidential Decree No. 90 which would punish by imprisonment those who spread “rumors, false news and gossip.” The decree declared rumor-mongering and false information unlawful.

And what was rumor and false information for him? Those that “cause or tend to cause panic, divisive effects among the people, discredit of or distrust for the duly constituted authorities, undermine the stability of the Government and the objectives of the New Society, endanger the public order, or cause damage to the interest or credit of the State.”

Only months after taking over the presidency, Corazon Aquino repealed on November 21, 1986, Presidential Decree No. 90.

“Instead of promoting the said objective, the aforesaid issuances in effect paved the way for violations of the freedom of expression of the people,” said Aquino’s Executive Order No. 65, which repealed the decree.

Summons to reporters

Of course there was Marcos’ Letter of Instruction No. 1which ordered the “takeover and control” of all newspapers, magazines, and radio and television facilities.

Still, news groups persisted against the clampdown to report on Martial Law, but Marcos made sure it was not an easy task to do so.

Bulletin Today’s Arlene Babst was summoned to the National Intelligence Board (NIB) after publishing columns on press freedom and political prisoner Edgar Jopson.

Babst described the interrogation by the NIB as something meant to “intimidate and instill fear in me (as well as all writers of the press) to the point that we will suppress the truth and not freely write or express my views on matters of public concern.”

Some of the questions asked of Babst in the proceeding were: “Don’t you think that you are being unwittingly used by those who try to subvert the government?” and “Do you realize that some of your writings are only a hairline away from subversive writing?”

The NIB also filed libel suits against other journalists.

Babst and other journalists who experienced the same petitioned the Supreme Court in 1983 to prohibit the NIB from summoning and interrogating them and from filing libel suits.

The Supreme Court dismissed their petition, saying it was already moot as the interrogation was already done, and that the libel suits must be challenged in the court where they are being tried.

Even if they dismissed it, the decision’s writer Justice Efren Plana acknowledged that the summon to the reporters, though they were not illegal, “can easily assume a different appearance.”

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Vicente Abad Santos said “the interrogations were not only offensive to the guarantees of free speech and free press, they also violated the right to privacy, the right to withhold information which are nobody’s business.”

He and Justice Claudio Teehankee dissented. Teehankee would later administer the oath of Aquino, and Abad Santos the oath of Salvador Laurel as president and vice president, respectively, on February 25, 1986.

Before she stepped down from office in June 1992, Aquino signed into law Republic Act No. 7438, the law that spelled out the duties of law enforcement officers in observing “the rights of those they invite to custodial investigations and ‘invitations.”

Fast forward to today, R.A. 7438 was the basis of Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza for saying that there is basis to suspend Duterte’s Oplan TokHang for violating the rules on custodial investigation.

The Supreme Court is set to decide on the constitutionality of the war on drugs. –

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.