Antonio Zumel, the revolutionary

Streetwise / Business World

MANILA — Last August 10 was the 80th birthday of Antonio Zumel, newspaperman extraordinaire, pioneering trade unionist in the newspaper industry and President of the National Press Club in its heyday, as well as one-of-a-kind revolutionary leader, the first Chairperson of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) and negotiator then senior adviser in peace talks between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the NDFP.

The Antonio Zumel Center for Press Freedom held a gathering of relatives, colleagues, comrades and friends to mark the occasion with the tagline “Tony Zumel @80 (He never wrote 30)”. In so doing, they celebrated the man and his legacy of unselfish, unflinching service to the cause of press freedom, nationalism, democracy and all-round progress for the Filipino people and nation.

Who was Antonio Zumel? Born in 1932 in Laoag City to Antonio Zumel Sr., a fairly successful lawyer and Basilisa de Leon, a former school teacher, “Ching” as he was fondly called by his family, learned early the virtues of honesty and integrity. In a short autobiographical article, “Our People’s Interests Come First”, published in the NDFP publication Liberation in 1986, Zumel recounts how his parents, though relatively well-off, were against extravagance of any kind and were strict disciplinarians.

The elder Zumel often exhorted his children not to allow other people to oppress them nor to oppress other people either. According to eldest daughter, Nena, their father also taught them never to pick a fight, but never to run away from one as well. The younger Zumel recalls that beneath his father’s stern countenance beat a kind heart as shown by how he always let old peasants hiking their way to market with their heavy load of produce hitch a ride in his car, a rare convenience during those days.

When Ching was 13 years old, his father died such that their family’s livelihood drastically fell. Ching and his eldest sister worked to support their studies. Some of the siblings left home to live with relatives. The young Zumel found himself in Manila trying to scrape together a living working at odd jobs as a casual laborer at a dump for war surplus equipment and as his uncle’s assistant in his water taxi at the Manila pier in order to continue his studies. He got a lucky break when another uncle gave him a job as a copyboy or “gofer” in the newsroom of the Philippines Herald.

Thus was Zumel initiated into becoming a newspaperman doing menial tasks while learning from what he called “crackerjack” editors, copyreaders and reporters and from journalism books he bought and avidly read. In two years he was promoted to proof reader where he worked in the Mechanical (Composing) Department and soon developed a “close affinity” with the workers there. Shortly after, Zumel who was now called “Tony” quit school to get all his education from on-the-job training working at the Herald and what he called the “university of hard knocks” or the real world.

Tony Zumel went on to be a top-notch reporter of Herald then news editor of Bulletin. Nilo Mulles, a close friend and newspaperman himself spoke highly of him in his posthumous testimonial to Zumel, “Crinkles of Mirth” where he described Tony’s “superior prose” with his “eye for the neat turn of phrase”, taking the time “to ruminate over the exact meanings and nuances of words” in order to produce his well thought-out stories. Mulles also pointed to Zumel’s integrity as a writer: “Great respect for facts shows in his work.”

Zumel himself recounted how there were so many temptations to become corrupt while he was covering political beats. He “tried to be impartial…in all (his) stories and gained some reputation as an uncompromising reporter.” At this point in his life, he described his political standpoint as “bourgeois liberal”. In his colorful language: “Pumuputok ang butsi mo sa mga depekto at injustices sa lipunan, pero sinisimangutan mo naman ang radikal na pagbabago.” (You rage against society’s defects and injustices but you frown on any radical overhaul of the system.)

With his upbringing to stand up against oppression, Zumel immediately signed up for the union that was formed by Herald employees and workers under the leadership of Teddy Benigno. After this fledgling effort fizzled out, Zumel persisted in establishing an independent and militant union against the union busting of management; this culminated in an attritional three-month strike that led to the eventual weakening of the union and Zumel’s resignation from Herald and transfer to Bulletin. Even as he was made an editor in Bulletin, he insisted that he would remain a union member and leader.

Zumel and his barkada were habitues of the National Press Club from the day of its inauguration in 1955. He became a board member for a dozen or so terms until he finally ran for president in 1969 and won.

Soon after, he got in contact with activists in the national democratic movement in the persons of the staff members of the Dumaguete Times, a provincial newspaper whose entire staff had been arrested by the military and local police and were being held incommunicado for being “subversives”. The NPC together with other press clubs in Manila and in other provinces campaigned for the release of the beleaguered young journalists who turned out to be members of the nationalist youth group, Kabataang Makabayan (KM).

Aside from reading political materials and having political discussions with his new KM friends, Tony became swept up in what he described as “the explosion of popular political energy in the first three months of (1970) which has come to be known as the First Quarter Storm of 1970.” He became a part of the “surging mass movement” which he saw to be “committed to extirpate the roots of our country’s problems – imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism – and attain genuine national independence, democracy and progress.”

Zumel won a second term as NPC president at which time he opened the doors of the club to the activist organizations of students, workers, peasants and other sectors under the umbrella of the Movement for a Democratic Philippines, a precursor of sorts of the currently existing national democratic alliance, BAYAN. The club’s premises became a venue for countless press conferences, assemblies of nationalists, civil libertarians and other progressive forces and refuge from police and military dispersals of mass actions and rallies especially at the nearby Plaza Lawton, now Liwasang Bonifacio.

Upon President Ferdinand Marcos’ suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in August 1972, he helped establish the Movement of Concerned Citizens for Civil Liberties (MCCCL) together with highly respected political leaders such as Senator Jose W. Diokno. The MCCCL was strongly linked to the mass movement of the basic sectors of what progressive church people called “the poor, deprived and oppressed” in Philippine society and led the massive demonstrations and marches that presaged the declaration of martial law.

On the day martial law was declared, Antonio Zumel went underground. From that day on, for nearly two decades, he would be known by various other names and seen in many places. But it was the same Antonio Zumel who had never run away from a fight, and who had now chosen the best time, place and way to do it.

Published in Business World
31 August- 1 September 2012

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