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‘Long knives’ season

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Tension between journalists, publishers and officials is as old as the 1450 Gutenberg press. It has resurfaced in Sun Star Cebu and tabloid Superbalita.

Sun Star Cebu is the flagship of a syndicated network of 13 papers. An average of 473,107 viewers daily surf the paper’s electronic version. The paper has garnered 236 local and international awards since its launching in November 1982 by the Garcia family. It posts a profit. Women run the top three editorial posts. Professionalism has kept politics at bay. Till now?

Interior Secretary Mar Roxas’ suspension of Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia lit the brawl. Garcia is not a candidate for canonization. But she was canned long after legal deadlines lapsed. It took 474 days from the filing of charges to her suspension. That straddles the start of the 2013 campaign. Garcia burrowed into her office while Agnes Magpale was sworn in as acting governor.

This “season of the long knives” has dragged in Bobby Nalzaro’s columns. Sun Star carried Nalzaro’s scathing criticisms of Governor Garcia despite periodic personal sniping. The columns vanished after the new year set in.

“I’m on sabbatical,” Nalzaro told Cebu Daily News. He’d been asked to stop writing “until the Capitol conflict is resolved…”

“It’s [the publisher’s] prerogative… I understand them and respect their decision,” he said. After “the issue blows over,” he’d decide what to do next.

“The press is a frail vessel for the hopes it is meant to bear,” London’s Sunday Times editor Harold Evans wrote. “The best it can do is never enough to illuminate the complexity of forces and agencies that we cannot monitor for ourselves but affect our lives. A free, cultivated… resourceful and honest press can only try. And if we ever get one, it will be interesting to see what it achieves.”

In Britain, Lord Justice Leveson completed, this November, an inquiry into a Guardian exposé: News of the World had hacked the mobile-phone messages of a girl who was murdered. “The press is often thuggish,” the Leveson report states. “The Press Complaints Commission is largely toothless.”

(Like the Philippine Press Council [PPC]? Some member-newspapers pilloried Antonio Calipjo Go when he blew the whistle on textbook rackets—a valid charge that President Aquino agreed with. The PPC collapsed after the accused papers ignored its request that Calipjo Go’s side be published.)

Fleet Street editors heeded the Leveson commission, and empowered their self-regulatory body to impose fines of up to £1 million. They rejected oversight legislation but welcomed an arbitration service for libel. (Sen. Vicente Sotto sneaked in Section 4-c (4) on libel, as a rider, to the pending cybercrime bill. That made libel nonbailable, press groups protested.)

At the Southern Weekly in Guangzhou, China, an editorial calling for human rights protection was pasted over by one praising the Communist Party. The staff held an unprecedented strike. Demonstrators waved chrysanthemums, flowers used for funerals.

Will the “solution” that striking journalists will not be punished hold? Dow Jones asks. That’d signal more elbow room under new rulers led by Xi Jinping. “Warm rice porridges from southern China can soothe the soul in winter,” said a Beijing News front-page feature. China observers interpreted that as support for Southern Weekly, BBC reports.

Bearded terrorists shut down Pioneer Press in 1951, forcing its publisher and editor to flee Cebu. Candidate Sergio Osmeña Jr. clubbed the Cuenco family for terrorism. Once seated as governor, Osmeña cracked down on the Southern Star for critical columns. The paper folded.

That hamhandedness rubbed off on Osmeña’s son. In 2004, Mayor Tomas Osmeña threatened to shut down GMA stations “for lack of business permits.” Osmeña vowed to sue radio stations that refused City Hall ads, since it didn’t settle earlier IOUs. He barred reporters when he was displeased by their reporting—then backed off.

President Joseph Estrada, in July-November 1999, mounted an ad boycott against the Inquirer. Erap was infuriated by the Inquirer’s reports on mounting graft. He dangled a quid pro quo before movie producers: He’d grant their request for tax incentives—if they would pull out their ads from the Inquirer

By July’s end, half of Inquirer’s top advertisers scrammed. A few, like the Ayala group of companies and Marie France, stood their ground, recalls managing editor Jose Ma. Nolasco. Name your price, a businessman close to Estrada told the Inquirer’s Sandy Romualdez. “The Inquirer is not for sale, not at any price. We will fight,” she told cheering employees.

Eleven years after his failed boycott, ouster by People Power, conviction for plunder, and pardon, Erap visited the Inquirer main office. “Mr. President, would you instigate another boycott?” one editor asked. “I hear you owe the people here P70,000 each”—a reference to lost profit shares. He smiled. “It was the show biz people who started it.  Sina  Armida [Siguion-Reyna]  ’yun,” he said. “Di ba after four days, OK na ulit ang  Inquirer?” Not so, editor in chief Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc quickly said.

In Cebu’s press tensions, what the Inquirer’s Marixi Prieto told the Personnel Management Association of the Philippines at the peak of Estrada’s ad boycott resonates: “Credibility is paramount in the news business. And commitment to this principle requires sacrifice… The pullout of the ads is just temporary, and we hope they’ll eventually come back. But once you lose principle, it can never be regained.”

(E-mail: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com )


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