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The Philippine media landscape is product of and subject to a stormy history that is characterized by recurring patterns: attempts of intimidation - let it be during Spanish or American colonialization, Japanese occupation or by Marcos’ martial law - and the media’s resilience, reflected in relentless, anti-establishment and often clandestine reporting. Another theme is the rise and fall of different eras of media oligarchs, that gained, lost, and partially re-gained their economic-political power before, during, and after Marcos’ time.  

American-style journalism lays foundations

American colonialization (1898–1946) left a mark on the press and shaped its style: a flourid lingua, a neutral attitude, paired with the contribution of opinionated and popular columnists. Asia’s first radio stations were found back then – possible as the Philippine broadcast media was not owned or tightly controlled by the government as it was all over the rest of the continent. By the 1930s, the press was as lively and increasingly in Filipino hands, setting up the tradition of powerful families investing in the media to gain political and economic influence. Then the Second World War and the Japanese occupation (since 1941) were a sudden cut: it left the newspapers as casualties, with most editors being forced into prison or exile. The era of small media outlets was over.

During the next two decades, oligarchs would consolidate their position as major owners of press and broadcast, combined in cross-media empires. Those empires were becoming increasingly concentrated. The pre-Marcos’ media resembled other Philippine institutions in a way: beneath a veneer of „democracy“, elites were free to set economic and political agendas largely unconstrained by any real public accountability.

Marcos’ regime: censorship and cronies

Ferdinand Marcos, president since 1965, ordered the closure of all newspapers and broadcasting stations when he declared martial law and abolished Congress in 1972. He wanted to deprive media oligarchs from power, hauled journalists and publishers off to prison. When some newspapers outlets reopened , they stood under strict government supervision. While the oligarchs were gone, media now was owned by either Marcos’ relatives or friends – his notorious “cronies” – an even more concentrated group. Coverage was now scrutinized by military censors and instructed – through the so-called Mass Media Council – to not cover controversial and critical stories that could disturb “an atmosphere of tranquility.”

EDSA: Non-violent people power, viewed in real time by a global audience

In 1983, Marcos’s chief rival, former Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. was killed upon arriving from the United States after years of exile. This resulted in street protests and a hunger for news, which fueled the emerging opposition press that reported on the assassination as well as exposed the regime’s abuses. Citizens called for a boycott of the “crony press” while the anti-Marcos press could stir up dissatisfaction with the government and helped mobilize public support for Corazon C. Aquino, who became president after Marcos was ousted in a bloodless revolution  in February 1986. This uprising was popularly referred to as EDSA  People Power revolution after the  highway (Epifanio de los Santos Avenue) where more than a  million assembled in front of the military and police camps to support the officials who stage a coup d’etat.

The turning points in EDSA were all media-inspired and broadcasted to living rooms all around the globe:  from the live broadcast of the battle over a major television station, to the abrupt cut-off of Marcos’ presidential speech - the world was watching.

System collapse and the rise of old elites

With the fall of the Marcos regime, a 14-year-old system of media control collapsed overnight. Into that vacuum rushed dozens of new newspapers and radio and television stations as Marcos’ media outlets were sequestered by the new government. In the crowded and expanding media market that emerged after the fall of Marcos, media organizations that came up with the most saleable formula emerged dominant.  Media outlets were privatized with some exceptions. Some of the pre-Marcos media owners regained the media companies that were taken from them by the government, e.g. the Lopez family.

Downfall of President Estrada – A text message revolution

A rambunctious media, which was the description of the Philippine press after it regained its freedom, is always the bane of powers that be. Presidents Cory Aquino and Ramos were uncomfortable with it but managed to deal with it conscious of the vital role of media in a democracy.

Estrada, however, was less tolerant. Displeased by reports of his alleged corruption he used state power by filing a libel suit against a newspaper. Aware that advertisements are the lifeblood of a media outfit, he waged a campaign to deprive a newspaper of ads. He also threatened the media owners with tax audits. This showed how media can be bullied in many novel and different ways without open violation of existing constitutional and legal guarantees that theoretically protect press freedom. Estrada’s attempt to strangle media companies backfired. The popular mobilization that led to the downfall of President Estrada in January 2001 was facilitated by the use of new communication technologies. An initially small group of activists and opposition politicians began a campaign to expose the wrongdoings of the Estrada presidency. Initially denied a voice in the mainstream media, they resorted to e-mails, websites and to disseminate information and jokes through SMS. As public awareness of his crimes grew, the audience also demanded better mainstream coverage, which empowered independent journalism in all newsrooms throughout the country, and eventually forced the main mass media to cover Estrada’s impeachment trial.

Media under the presidency of Arroyo, Aquino, and Duterte (so far)

Under the presidency of Gloria Arroyo, the attack on media was in the form of libel suits against 46 journalists totaling about P140 million filed by  her husband , Jose Miguel T. Arroyo in the period of three years – 2003 to 2006. The journalists fought back and filed a P12.5 million class suit against the First Gentleman. Arroyo eventually withdrew all the libel cases he filed on May 3, 2007 in the observance of World Press Freedom Day.

President Benigno Aquino, III reneged on his campaign promise to push for the passage of the Freedom of Information Law that would enhance transparency and accountability in governance.

On his first month in office, President Rodrigo Duterte issued an executive order for Freedom of Information in the executive department. However, it contains 166 exemptions.

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