MEMBERS of Cebu's news media fraternity once again gathered to celebrate the annual Cebu Press Freedom Week this year. After two years of marking the observance with virtual events, it was a joy to meet old and new friends and colleagues "in the flesh."
The week-long celebration was a collaboration among Cebu's news media organizations — Sunstar Cebu and Sunstar Superbalita, The Freeman and Banat News, CDN Digital, Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas Cebu Chapter, Cebu Federation of Beat Journalists, Newscoop and Cebu Citizens-Press Council. The event fell on the week of September 21, Martial Law Day, the darkest day in the history of the Philippine democracy, of the Philippine press in particular. "Philippines Free Press publisher Teodoro Locsin Sr. and his associate editor Napoleon Rama were arrested, as were Manila Times publisher Chino Roces, Daily Mirror editor Amando Doronila, Graphic magazine editor Luis Mauricio, and Philippine News Service contributing editor Juan Mercado," the Cebu Press Freedom Week pooled editorial reminded us. The arrest of people who had committed no crime was the result of President Ferdinand E. Marcos' ordering the military to take control of all privately owned news media facilities.
Of course, the free flow of information is vital to a democracy. Decision-making in a democracy is premised on the people's having access to the information that affects or will affect their lives. Suppressing the freedom of the press and free speech is suppressing people's right to know, depriving them of making informed decisions, depriving them of taking charge of their own lives.
September 21 is an official working holiday in Cebu City and Cebu province, known as Cebu Press Freedom Day. This declaration is contained in Republic Act 11122 authored in 2018 by the late Cebu City first district representative Raul del Mar.
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On Cebu Press Freedom Day, the Cebu Citizens-Press Council led the unveiling of a statue of the late lawyer Antonio Abad Tormis, a newspaper editor, columnist and radio commentator, who was murdered on July 3, 1961 for exposing the corruption and criminal activities of the Cebu City treasurer. The mastermind — the city treasurer himself — the triggerman and two co-accused were convicted. A street was named after Tormis in 1966, and a new marker (the original one from 1964 disappeared) placed on the spot in Borromeo Street where the 45-year-old Tormis was shot dead, in 2010. However, lawyer Pachico Seares, former editor in chief of Sunstar Cebu, feels that Tormis and his case deserved more attention, despite the passage of years and decades since that fatal night. Tormis is not the only Cebuano media person to have been murdered. However, his is the only case among a total of 11 of media persons murdered in Cebu since 1961 where it was established with absolute certainty that the killing was motivated by what the victim wrote or broadcast.
So, with the generous contribution of time, talent and treasure by local businessman Rod Ngo, the painter and sculptor Chris Java was commissioned to make a life-size statue of Tormis — or A. Abad Tormis as his name appeared in The Republic Daily (later renamed Republic News) — typing his column titled "For Amusement Only." The statue is displayed at the CJJ (Cebu Journalism and Journalists) Media Gallery at Museo Sugbo, the Cebu provincial museum.
Children, grandchildren and great grandchildren were present at the unveiling ceremony. Giving their Lolo Tonying "this special honor as Cebu's first Press Freedom Martyr," lawyer Maria Carmen Tormis-Abayon, a granddaughter, said in the family's response, "is a recognition of a crusader for clean government and a journalist killed for what he wrote. May his life as a journalist serve as an inspiration to young and budding journalists who should try to possess professional integrity, responsibility, accountability and most importantly, honesty, seeking out the truth and reporting it as accurately as possible."
While unfortunately most of the newspaper copies containing the late Tormis' columns have been lost to termites, some have been preserved. If his life hadn't been cut short in 1961, Tormis may have suffered the same fate as other journalists when martial law was declared in 1972. Consider his comments against Carlos P. Garcia, the then president, in a column from November 1959: "If possible, he (President Garcia) should be kicked out of Malacañang and dumped into the garbage can for using millions of the people's money to pay laborers who 'worked' on ghost projects in Cebu."
As mentioned above, the murder of Tormis was solved, with the triggerman, co-conspirators and mastermind being caught and convicted. The triggerman, tormented by a guilty conscience, confessed to the crime. Sixty years later killing for a fee leaves no sense of guilt and masterminds are skilled in how to avoid getting caught, unlike the Cebu City treasurer, Felipe Pareja, who kept the gun used to murder Tormis in a safe in his office.