Looking back 30 years ago

By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star

Tomorrow it will have been 42 years since Ferdinand E. Marcos declared martial law and began a 14-year fascist dictatorship. Once again, personal experiences will be told or retold by those who endured the horrors and brutalities of military arrest, torture, detention and other human rights violations during those years.

My narrative of such experiences has been shared countless times in print, on video, and in public forums. Let me share another aspect of my 9-year-long military detention: an intensified campaign for my release 30 years ago –– a prelude to my regaining freedom on May 5, 1985.

The campaign began after Ninoy Aquino was assassinated on August 21, 1983, amidst the nationwide storm of protests that was rapidly driving the dictatorship into extreme political isolation. The alternative press likewise surged in its growth and impact on public opinion. Journalists working in the controlled mass media asserted their freedom and militancy.

Previous to that, since 1981, there had been earnest efforts abroad to get me freed – initiated by individuals and groups in various countries who had read about my case and corresponded with me. The most enthusiastic were the International Federation of Journalists in Belgium and the Filipino activists’ group in Canada.

On Feb. 14, 1983 Newsweek magazine came out with a cover-page special report on thousands of the world’s “prisoners of conscience.” It featured the profiles of five political prisoners: Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Lev Volokhonsky of the Soviet Union, Ashraf Mahmoudi of Iran, Carlos Lopez Vila of Chile, and me. My profile was written by Seth Mydans and Richard Vokey. That international projection helped boost the campaign.

Initiating the campaign was Kapatid, the organization of relatives and friends of political detainees, supported by the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines. The Women Writers in Media Now pitched in. Working together intensely, they devised imaginative ways to broaden the campaign.

Their efforts paid off.

1. On Nov. 21, 1983, a petition for my immediate release, with 821 signatures attached, was sent to Marcos through Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile.

In that letter the signatories attested that I was a journalist “whose work was marked by thorough, fair and balanced reporting,” that as head of the business reporters association I “strove to raise the quality of reporting among its members.” I was a “good-hearted man,” they said, who “cared enough for his country to risk his life and his freedom for it.”

“He has suffered enough. He has undergone the severest forms of punishment including several stints in isolation,” they emphasized, urging fair treatment for me because of the almost 100 persons who were being tried (for subversion and rebellion) before two military commissions, only five of us remained in detention.

Among those who signed the petition (allow me to namedrop!) were: Renato Constantino, Teodoro Agoncillo, Salvador P. Lopez, Nick Joaquin, F. Sionil Jose, Bienvenido N. Santos; Teofisto Guingona Jr., Sr. Christine Tan, Mita Pardo de Tavera, Eugenia D. Apostol, Blas F. Ople, Jaime V. Ongpin, Ramon del Rosario Jr.; Lino Brocka, Behn Cervantes, Ishmael Bernal, Celeste Legaspi, and Charito Solis.

2. On Dec. 14, 1983, the National Press Club board of directors, headed by Ben F. Rodriguez of the Manila Bulletin, wrote to Marcos to revive three earlier attempts by the Club to seek his approval for my release. The board reiterated the NPC offer to take me in its custody.

3. Enrile responded positively to the Nov. 21 letter. On Christmas Eve, he signed a memorandum for Marcos recommending my temporary release “on humanitarian grounds.” He also cited the “strong recommendations” of “some international organizations” (Amnesty International, International Commission of Jurists).

Noting that several of my co-accused in the rebellion and subversion cases had been temporarily released earlier, Enrile agreed that the same could be done for me, who had already been detained for 8 years.

4. Two friends who were serving in the government then also appealed to Marcos in my behalf. They were Arturo Tanco Jr., agriculture minister, and writer Renato D. Tayag, Philippine National Bank director. (May they both rest in peace!).

“Bong” Tanco, in a Jan. 4, 1984 note, informed Marcos that he had signed the petition of friends for my immediate release, having known me since the late 1960s as a “conscientious journalist whose dedication to the truth and whose integrity as a writer were unassailable.” Should I be freed and accepted his offer, he said, he would take me to work with him at the ministry of agriculture.

For his part, “Katoks” Tayag reminded Marcos, in a handwritten note dated Jan. 16, 1984, that eight years in jail were a “long enough period entitling a prisoner to a pardon.” He counseled: “Your act of magnanimity under the circumstances will contribute in a large measure towards national reconciliation.”

All those written endorsements, however, failed to move Marcos towards ordering my release. By tagging me as a “viciously militant detainee who continues to commit rebellion in prison,” he seemed determined to make me rot in jail.

The sustained cooperation of my fellow journalists, primarily NPC president Antonio Nieva, enabled me to escape the regime’s clutches via the backstairs of the NPC clubhouse in May 1985.

Nine months later, in February 1986, the whole nation shook off the Marcos dictatorship.

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E-mail: satur.ocampo@gmail.com
Published in The Philippine Star
September 20, 2014

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