‘You–we–have cause that’s worth fighting for’
It was mid-1980s and Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc and I had yet to meet face-to-face. But in her handwritten (in green ink) letter to me, urging me to be courageous and face the lions, she was telling me in so many words that we were in this together because “you—we— have a cause worth fighting for.”
Dear Ms Doyo:
Please “honor” Defense Deputy Minister Barbero’s “invitation” to appear for a hearing on Wednesday. I’ve been trying to call you but your phone is always busy. The committee on human rights is genuinely interested in your on-the-spot interviews with the Kalingas. Barbero called us up himself.
You have nothing to hide. Your nonappearance would give the impression that you were less than “truthful.” Also you—we—have a cause worth fighting for. You were there. You know that truth is on your side. Just tell the truth … The men on the committee are not ogres—I know them to be good honorable gentlemen who are concerned as you and I that justice is rendered whenever and wherever it is due.
Also, your nonappearance would make the Panorama like two cents. I trusted you because I know the group that brought you to Macli-ing’s village and its reputation for zeal wherever the rights of the minorities are reportedly prejudiced. We become a bit less credible if you should go into hiding.
Popular opinion is also on your side judging from the flood of proletters we have received congratulating us for our fearless exposé. You—we—started a good thing going. Don’t give up now. This is what we wanted after all, to focus attention on what we perceived to be injustice to our Kalinga brother.
I did not go into hiding as Letty feared I might but I did experience military-style interrogation … I would never forget. And that would not be the end.
Letty had published my story on the killing of Kalinga chief Macli-ing Dulag in the magazine Panorama. When I sent the story with pictures I took myself, I was literally shaking with fear at the thought that it might get published.
It did, on June 29, 1980, with birthday girl Imelda Marcos on the cover at that. Letty gave it the title: “Was Macli-ing killed because he damned the Chico Dam?” I trembled.
As Letty’s letter showed, those were dangerous times for writers. A human-rights worker, I was then just beginning to write for the “mosquito press.” The Macli-ing story was my first major one in a mainstream magazine. In her Sunday column (“The truth about journalism”), she defended the story against a Marcos spokesperson, who had torn it apart.
The story (was) a watershed moment for me. Letty was there when, months later in February 1981, Pope John Paul II handed me a CMMA [Catholic Mass Media Awards] rock trophy for Best Feature Article. Letty was herself a nominee for her column “Sundays” that was gnawing in a pesky sort of way at the Marcos dictatorship.
Letty lost her job soon after, but not without an uproar from the long suppressed press … Her case became celebrated, a cause celebre that brought the fetters on journalists’ hands to near-breaking point.
That was how Letty and I began our journey as friends and colleagues in journalism, with her she as my boss. She was my Sunday Inquirer Magazine editor (1986 to 1988) and, later, Inquirer editor in chief (1991 until her passing on Christmas Eve).
After Panorama, Letty wrote for Mr. & Ms. (“Letters from Letty”) published by Eggie Apostol (Inquirer founding chair) and, after the assassination of Ninoy Aquino in 1983, was editor of Mr. & Ms. Special Edition that chronicled the protests against the dictatorship and exposed its rot.
I wrote for Mr. & Ms., too. The magazine’s first editorial office had on its door “LJM Garments.” You know, just in case.
Letty was not a stranger to the excesses of martial rule. Her first cousin, Leticia “Tish” Pascual, was on the list of desaparecidos or disappeared presumed executed by military elements during the dictatorship.
A former intelligence man told me Letty knew about efforts to find Tish’s grave but the area in southern Luzon, where her remains had lain, was now the site of a power plant.
After the Edsa People Power Revolution, the weekly Inquirer became a daily, and with a Sunday magazine at that. Letty asked me to be on the staff along with Recah Trinidad, Fe Zamora and JP Fenix, with Chuchie See as layout artist and Lani Montreal as editorial assistant. My first assignment was to fly to Leyte to look into the opulent playgrounds that Imelda Marcos had left behind.
After Letty left the Sunday Inquirer Magazine, she wrote a column (“Leavings”) for the Inquirer for a couple of years. Leavings, as in scraps left behind for someone to sweep away. How unpretentious a column name.
When she became Inquirer editor in chief in 1991, she asked me to write a weekly column for the daily. This, she said, would complement my magazine writing. She made me come up with column names. Grassroots? The Underside? Both disapproved. I sensed she did not like it to sound savior-of-the-oppressed.
“What about Human Face?” I said. She beamed. Approved.
My first Human Face column (“Yamot is in the heart”) was, as Letty had wanted, an offshoot of my immersion among the Aetas for a magazine story, before and after Yamot village was buried in Mount Pintubo’s volcanic ash. I thought then, this woman has some kind of prescience.
Fun and freedom
In 1993, a week before Letty was to leave for the United States to accept a journalism award, her daughter Kara asked me if I had anything in my files about her mom. She wanted this for a backgrounder the awards body, the University of Missouri, needed.
Of course, I had the Magsanoc Files. Which Letty did not have. She was sometimes amazed that people had things on her—things she had written, said or done.
Before she left for the United States, Letty asked me if I had that clipping of a speech by John Chancellor, commentator of NBC, that he delivered when he received the Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism. Chancellor was also among past awardees of the University of Missouri, where Letty finished her master’s degree in journalism.
Letty probably wanted to have an idea about what past awardees thought of their profession. Chancellor said: “As they say, journalism will kill you in the end, but it certainly will keep you alive in the meantime.”
But it was Chancellor’s closing lines that Letty liked and which was an answer to the why in her style of leadership in journalism: “The trick is to shoulder the responsibility without losing the sense of freedom that got you into the business in the first place. It is easy to go astray. Some of us begin to think we are important, which is a fatal trap. The news is important—we aren’t …
Letty totally agreed.
Letty’s citation partly read: For “her dedication and perseverance in exposing government corruption … and an effectively satirical and creative style that continues to grab the attention of readers.”
Letty was the only non-American who received that year’s Missouri Award from her alma mater. (Winston Churchill is among past awardees.)
In her acceptance speech, Letty, who was cited for her role in toppling the Marcos dictatorship, said that only the people could free themselves; the media could not do it for them.
She described what it was during the Marcos years: “… we went into protest journalism, Xerox journalism, brinkmanship journalism, set up the alternative press and what the Marcos minions called the mosquito press. The Philippine press just kept on daring.”
(In Letty’s foreword to my first book, “Journalist in Her Country: Articles, Essays & Photographs,” she wrote about “gotcha journalism” and “suicide journalism.”)
How did Letty get away with it? Like Chancellor said, she did not lose her sense of fun and freedom that got her into the business in the first place.
I learned many things about feature writing from Letty. Here are some I often share with would-be writers:
While writing an article I asked her, “How long should this be?” Her terse but gentle reply in contralto: “You know when to stop.” Wow, I thought. That has since become some kind of mantra, a rule of discipline in writing for me. One should know when it is complete, coherent, concise … Words are not to be wasted.
When I was starting as a magazine writer, I noticed how she deleted my first paragraphs or transferred them below because she must have thought them unnecessary pasakalye (preludes). One got the hint. She wanted the stories (features, too) to dive straight into the matter and hook the reader with a scintillating quote perhaps, or a dramatic scene. But she also appreciated meandering beginnings that would lead to the heart of the story.
Once when I wondered what I should include in my talk to nonjournalists about my experiences, she told me, “Tell them stories about what you’ve seen, where you’ve been.” Be a storyteller. She added, “Make it brief. They’ll love your for it.” And she laughed. Homilists, take the hint.
So in November when I wrote a piece on a talk I gave to 300 religious, I included the advice about storytelling that she gave. After reading it, Letty sent a message to say she needed to write something for the Inquirer’s 30th anniversary but she was having a writer’s block. “Thanks,” she said, “I am now following my own advice.”
Oh yes, about the Magsanoc Files. I thought then that Letty should put together things she had written so that they don’t remain filed in the archives. And if the military intelligence department has not yet burned its dossier on journalists, it would be fun to read their file on a woman named Leticia Jimenez-Magsanoc.
And so I’m the one with a Magsanoc Files. Many of these will go to the Ateneo Library of Women’s Writings or the Memorial Museum dedicated to victims and survivors of martial rule.
Months ago, I put together a file of articles written about her during the dark years when press freedom was under siege. These were to be submitted to the human rights violations victims board created by law and signed by President Aquino in 2013 for remuneration and recognition purposes.
She lost them, found them but couldn’t get herself to file.
She was a claimant in the class suit that won in the Hawaii court but was delisted because she did not refile as required by the court. This time, under Republic Act No. 10368, Letty could have been easily included (because she was already part of the class suit) as among those who lost jobs or property because of the excesses of martial rule.
‘Those would be tyrants’
I have before me several books hurriedly piled. In them the Magsanoc case is chronicled.
“The Philippine Press Under Siege,” Vol. 1 and 2; “The Quiet Revolt of the Philippine Press,” by Marcelo B. Soriano; “The Manipulated Press,” by Rosalinda Pineda-Ofreneo; “The State of the Philippine Press” (Foundation for Nationalist Studies).
Some of Letty’s “Sunday” pieces, along with other articles that incensed the dictatorship, are reprinted in “The Philippine Under Siege.” In it is included “The Letty Magsanoc Story.”
Many of these stories will again be compiled in a new volume, with me as editor. I would have loved Letty to write a new foreword for the new and future generations.
In “The Quiet Revolt of the Philippine Press,” is Letty’s forced resignation letter. She wrote this after Han Menzi, publisher of the Bulletin Today and Panorama, called a meeting in 1981 and said: “I just got back from Malacañang and I’ve never been embarrassed in my life. I’m sorry, Letty, I have to let you go.”
In her “Dear General” letter, Letty said: “Media institutions must illuminate the problems of the day and challenge those in charge to solve them. The untrammeled flow of information is the basis of an enlightened public opinion. Without it, those who would be tyrants will flourish; with it, truth is free to combat error … So I cannot understand why … men who have emerged from the war with 28 medals should fear the free expression of ideas. So much for embarrassing questions as there are only embarrassing answers.”
This article should not be about the writer (as she was wont to remind) but how can I not insert myself to give her credit for my becoming? What do I say to the person who mattered so much in my journalism career? She who started me off on a voyage at once so thrilling and so dangerous.
Letty, you never told me it would be like this. Oh, to be there where people live and die, feast and famish, laugh and cry. To be there where events unfold and to watch history leave its tracks behind for us to decipher and be awed and humbled to make us fall on our knees in thanksgiving and sometimes in mourning. To be there where heavens opened and hell broke loose.
Little notes she wrote me have been popping out of the woodwork. Let me share this one that might serve me for the long haul: “To Ceres, the light of reason wherever causes take her. As usual, Letty.”
During the time of the dictator, Letty wrote a piece that jolted the establishment. Its title: “Who elected the press?” The answer: No one. But for some divine reason, and in spite of our wretched selves, we have been chosen.
You, Letty, had been chosen.