Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts

Volume III,  Number 42              November 23 - 29, 2003            Quezon City, Philippines


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Joe Burgos’ Final Journey

Respected by his colleagues but reviled by Marcos and other foes of press freedom, Joe Burgos took the path least traveled by journalists during the dictatorship. Together with the underground press, he courageously steered an independent newspaper that eventually led to his arrest. Awarded by several international media groups later, Burgos fought his last battle – cancer – and succumbed to it last week.


Jose Gacusana Burgos Jr.or “Bugoy” to his colleagues in the WE Forum and Pahayagang Malaya will be remembered for pioneering the so-called mosquito press during the Marcos dictatorship.

Burgos died of stroke last Nov. 16.  He was 62.  His body was buried in his farm in Barangay (village) Tartaro, San Miguel, Bulacan, about 80 kms northeast of Manila Nov. 22.

The beginnings

In an interview with Bulatlat.com, his wife Edita narrated how WE Forum – the martial law newspaper that Burgos maintained until his death - began.  

Burgos’ wife Edita

In 1977, five years after the martial law declaration, the Burgos couple decided to put up an independent weekly newspaper. Edita said they only had one typewriter and a table borrowed from the National Press Club where they held an office.

“The whole family was involved in the WE Forum,” Edita said, explaining that family members took charge of the production.  She said that Joe himself delivered copies to dealers.

But since big newspaper dealers only sold mainstream papers – mostly Marcos-sanctioned dailies - Edita said they had to build their own network of dealers. 

“We developed personal relationships with our dealers. They believed in the (WE Forum’s) cause.  Some dealers also wrote news articles,” she said.

Edita recalled how they developed a support system after relocating in Quezon City.  As they were not allowed to install a telephone line, household and business establishments lent their phones. 

The Burgoses knew they were treading a dangerous path. And this was impressed upon student journalists applying for work at the newspaper. The young applicants were asked two questions: Do your parents know you are applying for this job?  Are you ready to be imprisoned?

The crackdown

WE Forum writers would joke that they were literally in the middle of life and death, Edita said. The publication’s office was located sandwiched by a funeral parlor and a nightclub along Roxas Avenue in Quezon City. 

Yet it was a regime of repression. And Marcos was particularly enraged at WE Forum’s expose’ on his fake World War II medals.  As a result, Edita said they knew they were in harm’s way. As a precaution, she kept a phone directory of people in media, mostly from foreign wires, and told her children what to do during a military raid.  

The Man and His Possessions: A rusty Underwood typewriter, a bottle of Glenfiddich wine, a pack of Marlboro Lights, and a rosary are placed beside Joe Burgos' picture. “You have not compromised a man just because you have silenced him,” goes a quotation inscribed in his picture. 

On Dec. 7, 1982, around 12 noon, agents from the notorious Metropolitan Command (Metrocom) led by Maj. Rolando Abadilla stormed their office. As she was making calls, Edita heard her husband say, “Nandito na sila.  Nandito na mga hinihintay natin.”  (Here they come. It’s them we’ve been waiting for.) Instantly, reporters came to cover the raid surprising the Metrocom men. 

Almost all of WE Forum’s columnists (including Dean Armando Malay), circulation, advertising and production managers were arrested. Except columnist Raul Gonzales, “pumunta sila sa office para magpahuli  (They went to the office to surrender to the military), Edita said. “That was how they protected themselves (from harm).”

A few months after his release, Burgos founded the Ang Pahayagang Malaya (Independent Newspaper) in early 1983.  WE Forum resumed publication in 1985.

Shortly after Edsa I in 1986, the InterPress Service honored “International Journalist of the Year” at the UN headquarters in New York. Several years later, in 2000, Burgos was named one of the 50 “World Press Freedom Heroes of the Century” by the International Press Institute.

Tribute by media colleagues  

A mass for Joe Burgos right on the farm he nourished for 15 years

It was past midnight of Nov. 22, the last night of his wake, when former Malaya editors, reporters, photographers and production staff arrived at the Burgos’ farm in Tartaro to pay tribute to the fallen press freedom fighter.

In his tribute, former Malaya photographer Manolet Agoncillo said, “Pinakamasayang chapter ng buhay ko bilang peryodista noong nasa Malaya pa ako. Si Joe Burgos, hindi nagpapatawag ng boss. Ang tawag namin sa kanya,Bugoy. Kakuwentuhan namin siya habang sinasara ang pahina.” (I was happiest during my Malaya days.  Joe Burgos did not want us to call him “boss.” We called him Bugoy. He would always talk to us during presswork.)  

Agoncillo related how he once played a Peter. Covering an event at the Manila Hotel, he made his way through the narrow entrance.  Alert military men guarding the area would ask every reporter/photographer what publication he is working for.  Agoncillo heard one of them mutter, “’Pag taga-Malaya, hulihin ninyo agad  (Anyone from Malaya must be arrested immediately).  So when it was his turn, Agoncillo replied, “Tempo (a tabloid) ho.”  

Dong delos Reyes, then a student who wrote for Malaya, said,  Ang daming papers noon, hindi kami maka-identify because they were all controlled papers. Malaya was different.”  

Former Malaya photographer Manolet Agoncillo reminisces on Joe Burgos

“Maybe, it was partly idealism, a certain rebellious streak but we wrote news that matter,” delos Reyes said.

“Because of Malaya, we obtained records at the NBI (National Bureau of Investigation).  That’s what you get for writing what your conscience says. Minsan naglalakad kami sa Recto, may tatlo kaming anino” (Once while walking along Recto Avenue, three men were trailing us), he said.

Delos Reyes also lamented the closure of Banat, a daily tabloid where he wrote a column titled “Hindot”.  It was named after Burgos’ favorite remark of displeasure in his newspaper days. 

Delos Reyes said that today, there remain many newspapers but few dare to expose the truth. 

Meanwhile, Young Media Circle, a newly-formed organization of young journalists, said in a statement, “The courage and conviction of journalists like Joe Burgos is ever a source of inspiration for us, young journalists, especially in the continuing fight for a social order characterized by full democracy—a social order in which press freedom shall be enjoyed fully.  We, young journalists, have a large stake in this struggle because we are the heirs to the future of this nation.”

The College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP), an alliance of student journalists, also paid tribute to Burgos: “Burgos taught us the real essence of journalism.  He is among the few who chose to break the myth of neutrality and sided with the people.  The alternative press that Burgos pursued paved the way for the fall of a tyrant.  Burgos wielded his pen in defense of the people’s right to press freedom and other democratic rights.“

Through a son’s eyes

Burgos’s son Jose Luis or JL recounted an incident during a hearing of his father’s sedition case.  Nakakordon ang mga militar. Hindi pwedeng makalapit kahit ka-pamilya.  Dahil maliit ako, sumuksok ako hanggang makarating sa military line.  Ayaw akong palapitin ng militar.  Ang sabi ko, ‘Bakit?  Tuta ka ba ni Marcos?’  Sabi ng mga tao sa militar, ‘Pagbigyan ninyo na ‘yung bata.’” 

(My father was surrounded by military men.  Not even relatives could go near him.  Because I was small, I managed to get near the military line.  When a soldier prevented me from getting nearer my father, I asked him, “Why?  Are you Marcos’ puppet?’ The people around us said ‘Let the child pass.’”) 

JL said his father taught him to serve the country.  His father would usually explain the events during those times. When JL began attending rallies during his college days, his mother would warn him of the possible dangers.  His father would just say, “Hayaan mo siya.  Para malaman niya.”  (Let him be. So that he would know.)

JL said his father prepared them for his final departure. “What you see now, it was all that he wanted.”  Torches lined the path from the entrance of the Land Farm to the chapel where his remains were laid.  Miniature Philippine flags were found everywhere. Played continuously were songs by Frank Sinatra and Gary Granada – two of his favorite singers, JL said.

A collage of Burgos’ photo, news clippings and Malaya issues – made by Benjie Laygo, Malaya’s former artist – was placed at the left side of the altar. Opposite were other mementos: Burgos’ first and only typewriter, an unopened bottle of Glenfiddich wine, a pack of Marlboro Lights cigarette, and a red rosary. 

JL said his father once asked that he be buried in his own farm, facing east. 

And so it was how an icon of the alternative press during Martial Law was laid to rest.  But his courage and principles are very much alive in the hearts of those he trained and inspired. Bulatlat.com

Photos by Aubrey SC Makilan

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