Mar 192013

clip_image002Heroes of Press Freedom The Religious Press and the Marcos Years

By Chit Estella

September 1, 2007


ON OCT. 24, 1975, the first big strike to be declared during martial law broke out in La Tondeña Inc.


An account of the event follows:

“At 2:15 a.m., three buses, full of workers, sped out of the factory. When the fourth bus was about to drive out, the priests and nuns barricaded the gate. They told the military to likewise arrest them since they had violated the curfew. The military said they were exempted.

“The … workers in the fourth bus were mostly women. When approached by the religious, some complained that they were boxed and pushed by the soldiers.  The religious requested the officers inside the bus to let them go with the people. The officers refused, saying that ‘they have their orders, their mission.’ The religious retorted that they, too, have their mission, ‘to serve the people.’


“Realizing that the military men were bent on following ‘orders,’ the religious decided to cling to the door and the windows of the bus. A military officer, who revealed himself to the religious as a devout Catholic, requested the latter to get off the bus. He was near tears; he was ‘confused.’”


It was not a mainstream newspaper, however, that reported these dramatic details of the La Tondeña strike. They were reported in a mimeographed information sheet called Signs of the Times, a publication of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines (AMRSP).

First printed in late 1975, Signs of the Times was published to meet the need of the Catholic religious community in the Philippines for information at a time of government control over media. Three broadsheets—all owned either by relatives or friends of the Marcoses—were the main sources of information. Independent radio and television stations had been closed down; most of those that were allowed to reopen were owned either by the government or by private individuals who have agreed to work within the limits set by the martial law government.

But it was an unusual time for the Church, too. The Sixties, observed Fr. Sebastian Luistro in his “Brief History of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of Men in the Philippines,” were a time of drastic economic changes where “the widening gap (between) the rich and the poor … was a scandal to Gospel values.” Members of the Church began to doubt “the self-enclosed stance of the previous decade” and have concluded that “it is not possible to be Church unless (it becomes) a community responding to the needs of the least of the brothers and sisters.”


The convening of the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965 represented “a culmination of this universal feeling that the Church … was insufficient” and must strive to become relevant.

With the awakening brought by the ’60s and the shock of a dictatorship in the ’70s, there was bound to be a conflict between the religious who were engaged in social reform and the government that was enforcing martial law.


In the beginning, the Church hierarchy was not one in opposing martial law. While some have been openly against it (like AMRSP which as early as 1973 had written and made public a letter demanding the release of political detainees and the end of martial rule), most Church leaders have adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

But a series of incidents eventually led a growing number of Church leaders to take a stand.


Facing up to Marcos


Just a few days after the declaration of martial law on Sept. 21, 1972, three priests were arrested in separate incidents. They were Fr. Daniel MacLaughlin, Fr. Shay Cullen, and Fr. Cornelio Lagerwey. In January of the following year, Fr. Jose Nacu, then the chair of the urban poor group, Zone One Tondo Organization, was also arrested during a protest march against military rule.


In his account as a Carmelite priest during the Marcos years, Arnold van Vugt in Martial Law Memoirs said:

“While I was on vacation in Canada, the Carmelites in the Philippines had a first tragic experience of the disastrous effects of martial law. One of our Carmelite priests in the parish of San Francisco, Agusandel Sur, Fr. Engelbert van Vilsteren, was murdered in January of 1973. The murder was committed by members of a fanatical sect who had resisted the holding of a plebiscite for the approval of the Marcos constitution. The teachers who were in charge of conducting the plebiscite were harassed by the sect and some of them were injured. When they called for help from the town center, Fr. Engelbert volunteered to drive the ambulance. Before they could reach the place where the injured were, they were attacked by the sect. Fr. Engelbert, being the driver of the ambulance, surrendered but he was immediately stabbed to death, clearly a victim of mistaken identity. The incident was never reported in the national media which was under the full control of the Marcos regime.” This prompted the religious superiors in Manila to conduct a nationwide survey to find out the effects of military rule on the people. According to Van Vugt, who helped conduct the survey, it was found out that there was “a general feeling among the people of widespread fear of the military and the police, a high sense of insecurity and uncertainty, and a complete ignorance of what was happening on the national level.”


The report was submitted to the Board of the AMRSP which in 1974 decided to set up six task forces. One of these was the well-known Task Force Detainees of the Philippines which served the needs of political prisoners. The others were the Task Force on Urban Conscientization, the Task Force for the Orientation of Church Personnel, the Education Forum, the Campus Ministry, and the Task Force Data Gathering.


More religious members were being arrested, primarily for their involvement in the social and political problems of the lay communities where they worked. Priests who were being arrested were, in turn, helped by prominent lay people who opposed martial law. The late senator Lorenzo Tañada, for example, became lawyer for Fr. Edward Gerlock who was involved in the protest actions being waged by farmers in Davao. Waving in court the Vatican II documents, Tañada declared that it was really the Church—not just his clien—that was on trial.


As religious support grew for activities that sought to bring about social change, so did repressive measures from the government. On Aug. 24, 1974, a novitiate in Novaliches was raided on suspicion that it was sheltering Jose Ma. Sison, leader of the Communist Party of the Philippines.Sison was not found there but the military arrested the lay persons whom they found in the novitiate.


Lending their voice


Still, Church leaders were reluctant to openly join the voices of dissent. A nun—who, in keeping with the security precautions at that time, took on various aliases like “Ruth” and “Dr. Hardy”—told PJR Reports that she and religious leaders that included Sr. Christine Tan went to see Jaime Cardinal Sin and asked him to sign a letter protesting government’s acts of harassment such as the raid on the Novaliches novitiate. They also wanted Sin’s support for a vigil outside the Manila Cathedral.


The politically savvy cardinal invited them to lunch at the Archbishop’s Palace. Hours after keeping his guests in suspense, Sin told them he was signing the letter. On Sunday, the day of the vigil, about 5,000 people came to the cathedral. Sin walked up the aisle for the Mass and in his homily said that he had spent five hours on his knees, thinking about and planning the protest vigil.

Astonished and amused, Ruth—whose group was the true organizer of the vigil—laughs as she remembers thinking, “What a good guy! He’s taking the blame (for the whole event)!” It was not unusual for the Church to take responsibility for protest actions and other activities that might become the target of government ire. The religious would adopt the same protective attitude when one of its publications became the subject of a raid. “It was an exhilarating time to be Church,” proudly says Ruth.


‘Daily Suppress’

With many events going unreported in mainstream media, the AMRSP decided to come out with a mimeographed weekly publication called Various Reports.

Initially meant to be used solely by the religious community, Various Reports contained accounts of violations of human rights and reprints of articles from foreign magazines, such as the Far Eastern Economic Review and the wire services. It also carried reports of military atrocities that have been witnessed or confirmed by members of the religious community in their respective areas.

In the beginning, only a dozen copies were produced and passed around among members of the religious sector. In time, Various Reports shed its unremarkable name and became known as Signs of the Times.

“Jerome,” a lay person who was in charge of production in Signs and who subsequently became a political prisoner, remembers the first office of the publication.  In an interview with PJR Reports, he says copies of the newsletter would be mimeographed in a room that measured three by seven meters. In addition to a mimeographing machine, the room had a typewriter.

Now the leader of a non-government organization, Jerome says he would meet with another lay person to put out the paper that was started by Sr. Elizabeth Farley, Fr. Benigno Mayo, and Sr. Christine.

“No one had any journalism background,” he says.

An editorial committee would choose the stories from among those submitted by its members and contributors. The criteria would be, according to Jerome: “What’s happening today? What’s not coming out in the ‘Daily Suppress?’”

The “Daily Suppress” referred, of course, to the Daily Express, one of only three broadsheets that were allowed to see print in the early years of martial law. For Signs, a secretary would type out the stories from an IBM electric typewriter and run the stencils in the mimeographing machine. The newsletter would be bundled up by the hundreds and received by oppositionists as well as by students and other sectors thirsting for news.

From the handful of copies produced by its predecessor Various Reports, Signs was now being printed in the hundreds and then thousands. To cover the cost of ink and paper, readers paid one peso per copy.


Stoking a fire

Von Vugt remembers his role as distributor of Signs during those days. “Every week, I would load a whole pile of new issues of the publication at the back of my motorcycle and deliver these to the different outlets in Metro Manila,” he said. Informal gatherings of persons opposed to martial law also became the venue for exchanging reports such as those contained in that Church publication. Ruth says Mondays would find opponents of martial law gathering at the house of former senator Jose W. Diokno. A mass would be held there, followed by an exchange of information. People who attended those gatherings also read Signs.

Determined to keep its legal character, Signs, which was in English, never reprinted stories from the underground publications of that time: Ang Bayan (The Nation), Liberation, or BalitangMalayangPilipinas (News of the Free Philippines). But it contained stories of torture, summary executions, mass arrests, and executions in the countryside. It listed the names of persons arrested and tortured, of sympathetic foreigners deported, and of persons missing and killed.

The paper did not have a staff box but it identified its office address which was the Apostolic Center in Pedro Gil, Manila. While the newsletter was legal, its operation was clandestine. Soon, the military was beginning to have doubts about the newsletter. For some reason, Jerome says, “(Copies of) Signs kept turning up in the UG (underground) houses that were being raided by the military.”

One day in December 1976, it was the turn of the Signs office to be raided. The mimeographing machine was seized by the military and the paper ceased publication. Its last issue was dated Nov. 27, 1976. One of its articles was a letter from five Catholic bishops to Marcos protesting the deportation of a Catholic priest, the closure of two Church radio stations in Mindanao, and the recent arrest of several Catholic and Protestant laypersons.


Rising from the ashes

Despite the raid, efforts to deliver information to the people continued. With the closure of Signs, another newsletter was put up. Called InformationisCausa, the publication’s format was almost the same as its predecessor. One of its issues reproduced the charge sheet against 208 persons and “several other John Does” for the crime of rebellion and inciting to sedition. Eleven of the accused were priests and nuns.

In a move that would never be made by the broadsheets of that time, Information is printed the transcript of a dialogue between then President Ferdinand Marcos and his officials during a joint meeting of the National Security Council, the Cabinet, and the military service commanders that took place on Dec. 29, 1976.

Eventually, Ruth said, the religious felt it was time for another publication to be opened and to pick up where Signs left off. There seemed to be no problem in finding people who were willing to once again take the risk of coming out with a newsletter. But what would the new publication be called?

Ruth remembers receiving a gift from a couple at about the time that she was mulling over the name of the newsletter. The couple, who had just come from a honeymoon in Baguio, gave her a silver pendant in the shape of a fish. It reminded her of the symbol used by early Christians who were being persecuted. Because Christianity was prohibited at that time, its practitioners would draw a fish to identify themselves to one another. And so came about the name of the new publication: Ichthys, the Latin word for fish.


A purpose served

By then, the movement against martial law had become unstoppable. Even those who were imprisoned for their political beliefs found a way to continue contributing to the cause while behind bars. The logo of Ichthys, for example, was drawn by a famous priest who was then a political prisoner. Friends and relatives of the detainees found ways of smuggling messages in and out of jail. One of these smuggled messages was the Ichthys logo.

Ichthys rolled off the mimeographing machine in September 1977. While Signs carried the mark, “For Religious Use,” such was no longer the case with Ichthys. Like Signs, Ichthys collated articles from foreign publications and reports from Church groups that were based in the countryside and the different sectors.

Ichthys, however, had a longer run and a wider circulation than Signs. It continued to publish until a few months following the first Edsa uprising. By then, newspapers that existed before martial law started coming back. The so-called mosquito press had become a strong presence in media and was going mainstream. The gap that the religious press had tried to fill during the darkest days of martial law was quickly being retaken by the returning inde-pendent media.

The religious press has served its purpose. In July 1986, Ichthys ceased publication. An article by the religious in the last issue (July 4, 1986), however, carried a cautionary message: “The unity, deter-mination and heroism shown by Filipinos in ending the Marcos dictatorship have brought renewed hopes for change. It will require more than mere change of leadership, however, to bring about the type of society that increasing numbers of Filipinos desire.”


The skepticism was out of tune with the euphoria and sense of triumph that prevailed shortly after Edsa. In one of the articles reprinted in Ichthys on May 23, 1986, a foreign journalist wrote: “So as far as exciting, dramatic news stories are concerned, the Philippines can be bypassed for the next few years.”

The writer spoke too soon.



From CMFR,






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