OUSTED President Joseph Estrada during his brief term of office waged war not only against the Muslims but also against press freedom in the Philippines. By the time he was impeached, it seemed he was winning.

First victims
One of Estrada’s first directives once in office in 1998 was for the Philippine National Police to conduct an all-out campaign against pornography. Then concurrent President and Secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government, Estrada ordered the PNP to confiscate and publicly burn copies of tabloids that contained sexually suggestive materials–among them Bulgar, Tiktik, Aliwan, Sariwa, Barako, and Init.

The police confiscated copies of the said tabloids and even arrested newsboys. Among the tabloids targeted by these attacks was Init, which was published by Isyu Publishing House, along with another tabloid called Isyu. In the process of confiscating Init, police also took away copies of Isyu, which featured opinion articles by known media personalities and which was at that time starting to shift to investigative reporting.

JP Fenix, then general manager of Isyu Publishing House, filed before the Quezon City Regional Trial court a petition for a temporary restraining order (TRO) and a P500,000 damage suit vs the PNP. He maintained that the confiscation of his company’s publications was illegal because no court warrant to that effect had been issued against the company. The petition for TRO was rejected and the case is still pending at the Court of Appeals.

These events among others led to the collapse of Isyu, which was perceived to be critical of the Estrada administration. According to Fenix: “At that time, we were just beginning. Our investors backed out upon seeing that the government did not like what we were doing.”

The website of “Subukan sa 558” (www.geocities.com/subukansa558), a radio show hosted by Fenix together with Isyu colleagues Jarius Bondoc and Joe Torres which abruptly went off the air last year for being anti-Estrada (please see discussion later in this article), has this to say about Isyu: “Isyu eventually folded up after a newly-elected President Joseph Ejercito Estrada, vindictive over the hard time he had had with the publication’s exposes, used a so-called anti-pornography drive to confiscate copies from newsstands.”

Standard court procedure requires that the complainant against a publication should (1) gather material evidence by buying copies of the allegedly pornographic material and (2) secure a court order that could be used in confiscations. Because these procedures were not followed, the anti-pornography campaign of Estrada was illegal.

In an article that appeared in the October-December 1998 issue of the Philippine Journalism Review, UP College of Mass Communication Professor Georgina Encanto wrote:

“Using the police to go after tabloid publishers and authorizing them to make judgments on matters of values and public morals sends the wrong signals because the practice could lead to abuses. In effect, their operations are a constraint on press freedom–a form of prior restraint that violates the Constitutional right to freedom of expression.”

She added that such actions “smack of authoritarian tendencies reminiscent of the Marcos dictatorship.” She recalled the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ decrees that increased the penalties for selling, exhibiting and giving away literature “offensive to public morals.”

Sued, bought and closed
The Manila Times was probably Estrada’s biggest victim in his crusade against the independent press. Its closure months after a presidential libel suit was described by former editor-in-chief Malou Mangahas as “death by corporate strangulation”.

The Times was among the newspapers that ran stories critical of the Estrada administration.

On March 9, 1999, Estrada filed a P101-million libel suit versus the paper after it published a story on an alleged contract rigging in a P17 billion government contract awarded to IMPSA, an Argentine firm.

The expose, written by reporter Joel Gaborni and headlined “Palace in 17-B contract rigging’ with the subhead “President was unwitting ‘ninong'” reported about alleged last minute changes to the contract of the National Power Corporation project, which violated the government’s bidding rules.

Estrada’s libel suit prompted an apology from Times president Robina Gokongwei-Pe. The apology, which appeared in the first column written by Gokongwei-Pe for the Times, was published on the front page of the paper on April 8. Estrada announced the withdrawal of his libel suit against the Times on that day.

The apology prompted the resignation of managing editor Chit Estella, associate editor Booma Cruz, chief of news reporters Ed Lingao and Gaborni, chief of news reporters. Malou Mangahas, along with news editor Glenda Gloria and news editor Manny Mogato decided to stay “to preserve the life of the Times”.

With the new editorial team, the Times remained as critical of the Estrada administration. Such reporting suddenly ended, however, when in July 23 the Gokongwei-owned Times published its last issue.

The Gokongweis sold the paper to a group representing a dummy of presidential friend Mark Jimenez following economic pressures on the family’s business empire. Reports have it that the family was spooked by threats of tax audit from Malacañang.

Lawyer Katrina Legarda represented in the sale negotiations real estate developer Reghis Romero who “bought” the paper from the Gokongweis for only P20 million. There were, however, reports that Jimenez was the paper’s real buyer, which Legarda and Jimenez vehemently denied.

On September 15 of that year, the new Times staged a comeback with Legarda as publisher and editor-in-chief. The following months, however, again witnessed the resignation of an editor and Times executives, including board chair Antonio Roces, due to questions on the real ownership of the paper.

The involvement of Estrada’s associate in the sale and closure of the Times later became clear when Romero sold his shares to groups led by Marcel Crespo, Jimenez’ son and by banker Eric Tagle and Pablo de Borja. Tagle was associated with El Shaddai leader Mike Velarde, Estrada’s spiritual adviser.

The new management promised editorial independence, which the editorial staff actually enjoyed for some time. But as the cliche goes, some good things never last. On December 30, 1999, at least eleven editors were forced by the management to resign.

Journalist Diana Mendoza, who joined the new Times mid-December of 1999, wrote in the PJR March 2000 issue: “John [Nery] and Carlos [Conde] said what happened was as clear as day: the management fired the editors because the management wanted to put in place a team friendly to the management and to Malacañang.” Nery and Conde were city editor and metro editor, respectively. They were among those forced to resign.

“Voluntary” boycott
Just some weeks before the sale and closure of the Times, the Philippine Daily Inquirer also suffered a devastating blow from Estrada’s cohorts.

Two days after Estrada invited some of his movie producer friends to a dinner on July 8, a series of ad cancellations began in the Inquirer. Movie producers, as well as government-friendly corporations such as Smart Telecommunications, Piltel, Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company, Fort Bonifacio Development Corporation, government financial institutions namely Landbank, Social Security System and Philippine National Bank withdrew their ads from the Inquirer.

The producers claimed they boycotted as an expression of support for Estrada, and that it was voluntary. In effect their decision to stop putting ads in the Inquirer was retaliation for what they perceived as the Inquirer’s anti-administration stance.

Estrada denied that he had orchestrated the boycott. But he admitted that he had discussed the issue with the producers. But Estrada himself banned Inquirer reporters from Malacañang media briefings for more than a month.

Killed by its owner
The Philippine Post, a Manila broad-sheet owned by Benito Brizuela, a close friend of Estrada, stopped publication in November 2000 after Brizuela refused to provide the newspaper the newsprint it needed to continue publishing.

Brizuela was apparently irked by the editorial staff’s stubborn insistence on editorial autonomy. Although published by an Estrada associate, the Post during its brief life had several times demonstrated its independence.

When jueteng-gate broke out, the Post faithfully covered and reported on it. It published enterprising stories such as “Erap duped squatters” (October 20, 2000, Marites Sison) which reported former housing czar Karina David’s revelation that the land certificates that Estrada had distributed to an urban-poor group in Metro Manila were fake.

This kind of reporting did not sit well with Brizuela, who according to former Post executive editor Dan Mariano was so proud about his closeness with Estrada.

“Unembarrassed by the fact that he had yet to pay the salaries of his employees, Brizuela insisted that the Post rally to Estrada’s side. He would badger the executive editor with anecdotes about his close ties with Erap even while the [editors were] in the middle of putting the paper to bed. On one occasion, he summoned the editorial secretary to pick up from his office a picture of Estrada taken during the baptism of Brizuela’s infant son. We’re that close, Erap and I, was what Brizuela wanted the Post editors to understand,” Mariano wrote in the December 2000 issue of the Philippine Journalism Review.

“He said that he was being scolded by Dante Tan, Aventajado and others close to Estrada for allowing the Post to ‘join the opposition bandwagon.’ He even claimed that he was being snubbed by “02” and could no longer join the mah-jong sessions at her San Juan residence,” Mariano added.

Not only did Brizuela want the Post to be a propaganda paper for Estrada. He had not paid his employees their salaries for months. The Post suffered big financial losses after Brizuela’s promised infusion of funds by new investors did not materialize.

The Post management eventually decided to suspend operations until new investors come, effectively shutting down another critical newspaper.

Estrada versus broadcasters
As the jueteng-gate controversy dragged on, there was widespread perception that the broadcast media, particularly the AM radio, were pro-Estrada. This seemed particularly true in the case of one broadcasting network and some and its radio commentators.

But still, there were some who dared challenge Estrada’s clout in the broadcast media. Among those who dissented in the predominantly Estrada-friendly radio frequency were Fenix, Bondoc and Torres through their program “Subukan sa 558” which used to air every Sunday, 12:30 to 2:00 PM over RMN News Manila, DZXL 558 kHz AM.

Fenix, Bondoc and Torres discussed jueteng-gate, interviewed anti-Estrada personalities, announced schedules of anti-Estrada mobilizations and played anti-Estrada songs. They also had a tie-up with Pinoy Times and Pinoy Times Special Edition–they read aired wrap-ups of the articles on air, which included the stories on the mansions of Estrada’s mistresses.

But on 7:45 pm on December 13, the station axed the radio program. This came after DZXL station manager Ricky Alegre asked them to tone down their criticisms of Estrada, Fenix said. Alegre even suggested, Fenix added, that one of them act as a devil’s advocate and act as pro-Estrada to “balance” the program.

The trio turned down Alegre’s suggestion. The next thing they knew, their show had been cancelled. The station manager cited an internal disagreement between him and his colleagues in management as the reason why “Subukan” had to stop airing.

“It came out later na may pressure sa kanila [from Malacañang],” Fenix said. For his part, Torres in a phone interview told PJR that RMN management had received a phone call from Malacañang before their show was cancelled.

Only two days after the cancellation of “Subukan”, another radio program critical of the Estrada administration, “Waldy Carbonell sa Katanghalian”, which airs at noontime in DWIZ, was axed.

“Station insiders cited pressure from Malacañang Palace and PNP Chief Ping Lacson as the reason,” reported the “Subukan” website.

DWIZ, owned by businessman Antonio Cabangon Chua, is run by station manager Rey Langit. Incidentally, Alegre and Langit were reportedly among those included in the list of alleged recipients of jueteng payoffs said to be given regularly to media men in exchange for favorable coverage for Estrada. “Subukan sa 558” website reported that “Alegre has been under investigation for his being specifically named in the tapes revealed by Chavit Singson in his conversation with Presidential Legislative Liaison Office Secretary Jimmy Policarpio. Policarpio had named Alegre and DWIZ’s Langit as being in Malacañang’s payroll.”

Radyo Bandido jammed
Meanwhile, an attempt to prevent radio station DZRJ-AM from broadcasting by interfering with their radio signal was reported by Muntinlupa Rep. Ignacio Bunye. In a privilege speech at the House of Representatives last December, Bunye denounced what he called a “systematic effort to stifle the voice of the political opposition.”

According to Bunye, he was the invited guest in the morning radio program of Rey Hidalgo Santos of DZRJ on December 12. Among the topics discussed were the impeachment proceedings and the article in Der Spiegel on the kickbacks allegedly received by Estrada and then Secretary Robert Aventajado from the ransoms paid to the Abu Sayyaf by their foreign hostages.

“What was most unusual was that DZRJ’s transmission was marred by static or electronic interference throughout the hour-long interview. Some callers inquired whether the program was deliberately being jammed by parties who did not want the said radio program to be heard. One caller even identified himself as an electronics expert and said he was convinced that the jamming was deliberate,” Bunye said.

He added that that jamming had been occurring for several days already at that time during DZRJ’s programs.

“Given DZRJ’s reputation as an “opposition” station and the identification of its owner as the profile composer of many anti-administration jingles, the jamming was not totally unexpected,” Bunye said.

The Isyu confiscation and public burning, the Times and the Inquirer cases, the cancellation of critical radio shows and the jamming of an independent radio station clearly demonstrated a pattern of suppression during the Estrada administration –a record unequalled in recent times by any Philippine government. Estrada’s ouster in January 2001 helped the cause of the independent media, among others, by removing from office a government that tried almost everything to sabotage the freedom the Constitution guarantees mass media.

Philippine Journalism Review