Macapagal-Arroyo Administration Resorts to `Soft’ Media Censorship

On September 21, 1972, then President Ferdinand Marcos put the country under Martial Law, subjecting the mass media to direct censorship. The incumbent President proves to be no different from Marcos as she resorts to more subtle forms of media censorship.


The intent is clear if one were to read the full text of Art. III, Sec. 4 of the 1987 Constitution: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”

This provision alone reinforces the argument that Martial Law under the late Ferdinand Marcos has already ended with the ascension to power of Corazon Aquino in 1986. While censorship was very apparent during the time of Marcos, observers note that we are now reaping the fruits of EDSA 1 given the supposed restoration of democracy.

Unlike the period from 1972 to 1986, no newspapers and broadcast stations have been forcibly closed down by the succeeding administrations through decrees and orders. Journalists are said to be more able to freely exercise their profession, making the media a suitable venue for debate among protagonists.

The emergence of the new media, particularly the Internet, has given opportunities for both mainstream and alternative media to broaden their reach and provide Filipinos and other nationalities here and abroad more choices to satisfy their information needs. Regulation of content from the Internet – or to be more precise, the World Wide Web – is said to be a monumental task for a “technologically challenged” administration so dissidents have turned to the new media to make known their stand to concerned and like-minded online users.

Where, at this point, does censorship come in? Isn’t Martial Law already over? Isn’t censorship at this time an impossible task for the powers-that-be, given the power of the Internet to immediately upload text, graphics, pictures and audio-visual materials, free from the any government intervention? If opposing views can now be accommodated by the media, doesn’t this mean that there is no attempt from the administration to suppress information?

There is, however, more to the current media situation than meets the eye. There are direct and indirect forms of censorship being used by the Macapagal-Arroyo administration from 2001 to the present. A discussion, however, of what transpired during Martial Law and beyond is in order to properly contextualize the manner in which censorship has been done through the years.

Defining censorship

Censorship refers to “the institution or practice of censoring” which is, in turn, defined as suppression of publications or excision of any matter in them “thought to be immoral, seditious, or otherwise undesirable.”

Censorship can be done at various levels. While government regulations directly affect media freedom in a country, it must be noted that the media gatekeepers also exert influence on the nature of media content and, consequently, the information that the public gets. A media practitioner and his or her editors may, consciously or unconsciously, resort to self-censorship in the performance of his or her functions. Suffice it to say that this can be brought about by the prevailing environment of suppression in the media.

For purposes of discussion, we will only focus on government regulations and the emerging measures undertaken by the Marcos and Macapagal-Arroyo administrations to fulfill their agenda.

Censorship under Martial Law

In the context of Martial Law, censorship was clearly seen in Letter of Instruction No. 1, issued on September 22, 1972 ordering the press secretary and the defense secretary to take over and control or cause the taking over and control of the mass media during the national emergency. Please note that the first letter of instruction under Martial Law, issued a day after it was declared, involved the mass media.

The Marcos administration was, at that time, apparently aware of the power of media in shaping public opinion, especially in making his dictatorial regime acceptable to the people. Not surprisingly, Marcos resorted to various direct forms of censorship, as may be gleaned from two orders coming from the Department of Public Information (DPI) on September 25, or three days after the issuance of Letter of Instruction No. 1.

DPI’s Order No. 1 made it clear that all media publications had to be cleared first, reminding media practitioners that the mass media shall publish objective news reports and that no editorial comment shall be permitted. According to a study by Rosalinda Ofreneo, it also stated: “Expressly prohibited are materials that are seditious or that tend toward disorder, lawlessness, and violence.” Order No. 2, on the other hand, prohibited printers “from producing any form of publication for mass dissemination without permission from the DPI.”

On October 28, 1972, Marcos issued Presidential Decree (PD) No. 33 penalizing “the printing, possession, distribution, and circulation of printed materials which are immoral or indecent, or which defy the government or its officers, or which tend to undermine the integrity of the Government or the stability of the State.”

In a study, Crispin Maslog identified other laws which prevented the spread of what the administration considered sensitive information, among them “PD 90 (penalizing rumor mongering), PD 1737 (empowering the President to detain persons to prevent them from acting against national security or public order), PDs 1834 and 1845 (escalating the penalties for rebellion, sedition and other crimes related to national security, including “subversive journalism”), and PD 1877 authorizing the incarceration for a period not exceeding one year of persons accused of national security crimes even without charges being filed against them).”

Aside from these laws, Marcos also established media-regulating bodies like the Mass Media Council (MMC) through PD 36 on November 2, 1972. In a nutshell, all media agencies were required to secure a certificate of authority to operate from the MMC. The latter was abolished on May 11, 1973 through PD 191.

However, the Media Advisory Council (MAC) took the place of the MMC which was also tasked to issue certificates of authority to operate the mass media. Its only difference with the MMC was the composition of the body which provided more private sector representation.

The MAC was abolished on November 9, 1974 through PD 576 because, according to a study by Ofreneo, there was in the eyes of the Marcos administration an “improved capability of the mass media to regulate and discipline their ranks.”

It was also through PD 576 that the Philippine Council for Print Media (PCPM) and Broadcast Media Council (BMC) were created. Maslog described this development as “a step towards normalization” (1990: 37) since the two councils were essentially self-regulatory in character. Critics, however, noted that the PCPM was mainly composed of publishers so press freedom was not upheld since only their interests were protected. The same case applied for the BMC which, like the PCPM, had mostly Marcos cronies for their officers.

The PCPM, interestingly, was empowered by the Marcos administration “to impose sanctions, including cancellation of registration certificates, suspension or written admonition in the case of media; and withdrawal of recognition, suspension of recognition or warning, in the case of advertising agencies.”

Censorship at Present

The succeeding administrations after Marcos saw the dismantling of direct controls over media, though some media-related organizations and agencies created under Martial Law still exist.

For instance, the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP), created in 1973 as a mechanism for self-regulation, is still very much around. The same case is true for the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB), created on October 5, 1985 through PD 1986. (Teodoro, 2004)

While there are initiatives to reorient the television and radio codes of the KBP to adapt to the post-Martial Law situation, the same case cannot be said for the MTRCB. According to Luis Teodoro, the MTRCB is actually a “censorship board” (2004: 71). He argued: “It has the power to censor and delete portions from films. Several cases illustrative of the dangers of this power have arisen over the last decade. For example, the Board’s decision, overridden by the President, to cut `objectionable portions’ from the film `Schindler’s List’ as well as other decisions affecting Filipino films. Most of these cases have inevitably clashed with Art. III, Section 4 of the Constitution…”

If one were to read the implementing rules and regulations (IRR) approved by the MTRCB on February 24, 2004, the word “censorship” cannot be found. In fact, the MTRCB IRR is even explicit in identifying the board as a “regulatory body” (Chap. II, Sec. 6) that shall only “review and classify motion pictures, television programs and related promotion materials and commercials for TV and cinema, applying as a general standard contemporary Filipino cultural values” (Chapter II, Sec. 1).

Teodoro’s contention apparently stems from the manner in which review and classification have been done through the years. The MTRCB, after all, is wont to recommend deletions of what it deems objectionable portions of whatever it is reviewing so that the producers can get their preferred ratings. Aside from the propensity to make recommendations on how to make the materials measure up to what the MTRCB thinks as the “general standard contemporary Filipino cultural values,” an X rating from the MTRCB prevents the affected materials from being shown in movie houses. In the case of airing on television stations, a G (general patronage) or PG (parental guidance) rating is necessary for public exhibition.

Such was the fate of the documentary “Ang Mabuhay para sa Masa” about the life of ousted President Joseph Estrada last month which was rated X. According to the MTRCB’s August 28 memorandum, the second and final review showed that the Estrada documentary tended to “threaten the political stability of the state; undermine the faith and confidence of the people in the government; [be] libelous or defamatory; [pertained] to matters that are sub judice in nature.” The MTRCB effectively upheld the decision of its first review committee which gave an X rating to the documentary on August 23.

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