ON the day this column said the smoke of corruption has entered certain circles close to the President, Malacañang confirmed it by “firing” Peter Laviña, the chief of the National Irrigation Administration, for alleged “corruption.” The presidential spokesman subsequently corrected President Rodrigo Duterte’s statement by saying that Laviña had resigned for his own self-protection. People I know who personally know Laviña tend to accept Ernesto Abella’s explanation—only by getting out could Laviña, in their view, avoid the illegal pressures from Cabinet superiors. They knew Laviña as a highly principled NDF member; as DU30’s campaign spokesman, he did his job better than his official successors are doing their jobs right now. But the smoke of corruption does not begin nor end with Laviña; it deserves a more focused investigation.
This is a service independent journalists should now perform. This is not without risk, as it has just been made plain. On the same day of the Laviña incident, I was told I had been placed under military surveillance for my critical columns, on orders from on high. I have become a danger to my friends. One action is not related to the other. The action against Laviña is related to PDU30’s campaign against crime and corruption. The reported action against me on the other hand is directed against independent reporting and free expression in journalism. I have compelled DU30 to admit he had gone to Fuda Cancer Hospital in Guangzhou, which he tried to trivialize by saying he had gone there for “circumcision.” I have tried to be constructive and helpful even in my critical pieces, but since he apparently does not read, and the worst people read things for him, even my constructive pieces are anathema to him.
But I am a law-abiding citizen. I am not involved in any moral or legal scandal, or any plot to oust or destabilize the President. DU30 and his people are fully capable of destabilizing themselves, and that’s what they are doing right now. They have decided to violate my fundamental rights—already my telephone line has been bugged, my internet access periodically attacked, they try to record my private conversations. But my only “crime” is that I write without fear or favor, and though my sins be scarlet my columns are read everywhere, and what I write is believed, especially by overseas Filipino workers, the rank and file in the bureaucracy, the conscience-stricken PNP members, and the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
A journalist’s tale
I am now 77. I have been in public life for at least 54 years. Except for the 25 years I have spent in the Cabinet, the interim Batasang Pambansa, and the Senate, I have been a journalist and writer all my life, a public thinker, if you like. In 1969, at 29, I became the youngest Cabinet member on record, performing the job of press secretary, presidential spokesman, information secretary/minister, and writing speeches for a brilliant President. In 1974, while martial law was under fire from the world press and international organizations, TIME magazine named me one of the “150 faces of the future” in an international survey of young leaders around the world. Ninoy Aquino was the only other “face” from the Philippines.
In 1980, I resigned from the Cabinet—the only one to do so six years before Marcos fell at the EDSA revolt. At the interim Batasang Pambansa, where I held my 1978 elective position until 1984, I joined the parliamentary opposition. I ran the only public campaign against Marcos in the 1980 presidential elections. From 1984 onward, I wrote for various national and international publications, including Business Day, Philippine Daily Globe, Mr. and Ms., the old Manila Times, International Herald Tribune, and Wall Street Journal. For a couple of years, I published and edited Philippines Newsday, which the American author Lou Gleek called “the best daily newspaper in the country, bar none.” Elected to the Senate in 1992, and serving until 2001, I chaired various committees including foreign relations, energy and environment, and ran the Senate Floor as chairman of Rules and Majority Leader through five changes in the office of the Senate President. Fairly or unfairly, the Senate media called me “the Moral Conscience of the Senate.”
Today I write as an independent columnist on the front page of The Manila Times. I am not a paid employee, I am free to stop writing for the Times for any reason whatsoever any time I like, just as the paper is free to stop using my column for any reason anytime it pleases. But for as long as I write and I attach my name to what I write, I am obliged to use my modest skills as a professional journalist to give my readers the truth that must be told and the analysis and opinion that must be shared, which should never be the same as what they get from the fishmongers. I do not necessarily believe that journalism is the art of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, but if that be the end-result of telling the necessary truth about what’s happening in the world, then so be it.
Many things have changed
Philippine journalism has evolved in many ways. There are infinitely more media outlets now—more media time and space—than there are qualified professionals for them. Media owners and gatekeepers have become parts of the political power establishment, exercising what British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, in his famous fight with Lords Rothermere and Beaverbrook, called “power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.” Mediocrity and worse than mediocrity persists. Excellence is a crime. Enterprise reporting is not only dead, but most young and not so young “journalists” have not even heard about it.
To the government’s misfortune, it’s the only journalism I know, and I have not lost it with age. I learned and practiced it during my entire reporting career at the Department of Foreign Affairs. To me opinion should always be free and the facts forever sacred. As a young Foreign Office reporter (in fact the youngest), I pounded my beat seven days a week, from the time the first staff officer checked in until the last one checked out. I read every classified document I could get my hands on, and reported every secret the Foreign Office tried to hide.
This involved the most challenging journalism. Reporting foreign policy is not the same as covering a boxing match or a basketball game where everyone sees who scores and who doesn’t. One has to track the evolution and movement of ideas, which are not as visible as a boxer’s punch or a three-point basketball shot. Even as a tyro, I had to study the issues as assiduously as the Foreign Secretary and his staff, so that I would know what questions to ask, and what stories to look for. I had to develop certain skills, like reading an official document from the back, or trying to mingle unobtrusively with official security or conference delegates in order to have access to a primary source.
As correspondent for Agence France-Presse, this skill enabled me to have a running scoop, which I shared with my friend from Reuters, on the secret deliberations on the founding of the Asian Development Bank. On another occasion, I found myself next to the dinner table of President Diosdado Macapagal and Indonesian President Sukarno at the Pangarap green across the Pasig, where no other newspaperman was present. Told about the newspaperman’s presence, Macapagal ordered that I be given a good dinner and gracefully escorted across the Pasig. On yet another occasion, I was able to provide sustained reporting of the closed-door negotiations on the Laurel-Langley Agreement between the Philippine and American ministerial panels in Baguio City, simply by staying under the window of the meeting room, and asking a few questions afterward. Absent any hard data, I tried to speculate on the proceedings, but my speculations proved highly accurate, prompting the US panel to accuse the home panel of leaking stories outside.
What I am saying here, without any false modesty, is that I tried to be very good at my job. I came to the point of scooping the competition daily, at will. Writing for the Bulletin after three years of wire service journalism, my biggest scoop was a story coming from the future President Fidel V. Ramos, who was then head of the Philippine Civic Action Group (Philcag). He was recommending that his father, then Foreign Secretary Narciso Ramos, ask Marcos to authorize the Filipino contingent to come home for Christmas, and to keep them on holiday until the US government responded positively to certain urgent Philippine requests. I got this story on a Sunday afternoon, when only the Foreign Secretary and his secretary were working; he had his secret memo typed and sealed and dispatched so that Marcos could read it first thing Monday morning.
But since I got the story and my paper ran it as its banner headline, what Secretary Ramos got on Monday morning was a bawling out from an angry President who could not understand why the subject of a top-secret memo was already in the headlines. Ramos was understandably angry and refused to see the press for a few days. While his staff investigated how the story leaked, he had the door of his adjoining office walled up to deny entry to the press and outside callers. In its place, he had a small opening built, similar to what some restaurants use to send food from the kitchen. The secretary got more incensed when I had the new carpentry work photographed and printed in my paper, with the caption, “Neither a window nor a door, just a way to keep the newspapermen out.”
Diplomatic ouster proposed
The secretary’s next move was to ask for my ouster from the Foreign Office. He asked to see my publisher. Brig. Gen. Hans Menzi, an industrialist of Swiss descent, who was at the time the military aide de camp to the President. Ramos specified that I accompany my publisher. Asked what he (Menzi) could do for the Secretary, Ramos answered that he would like the General to reassign me from the Foreign Office to somewhere else. Asked why he should do this, the Secretary answered, “Because a government must be able to keep some secrets, but this fellow has made it impossible for us to do it.” This was accompanied by some philosophical discourse, at the end of which he repeated his original request.
Whereupon, Menzi said, “Mr. Secretary, can I ask you something?” “Certainly, go ahead, General.”
“Sir,” the General said, “supposing I were in your shoes and you were in mine, and I asked you to reassign your reporter for exposing all my official secrets, would you do it?” Ramos, who had been a newspaperman before, looked at the General, then raised his eyes to the ceiling, and chuckled, “Hell, no.” Then he added, “But perhaps you could tell him to be a little less efficient in his job.”
I had no time to be less efficient. Shortly thereafter, Marcos invited me to the Cabinet. This interrupted my writing career. But leaving the Cabinet 10 years later, I found myself writing an exclusive story about Marcos’s secret kidney transplant. The story was not meant to embarrass Marcos, who had become dear to me, but simply to tell the nation the truth. This is all I am trying to do right now. If my disclosures, which have not been denied, have become a problem to DU30, the only solution is for him and his men to do their jobs exceptionally well, just as I try to do mine.