Manila — The staff of the Times Journal, one of the largest daily newspapers in the Philippines, recently received a new instruction from their publisher: From now on all photographs or stories dealing with Imelda Marcos, President Ferdinand Marcos's very powerful wife, must appear on the upper half of the front page.
''And,'' a staffer added, ''if we have to choose between stories on both husband and wife, we have to give her precedence.''
The instruction is hardly surprising. The Journal is after all owned by Benjamin ''Kokoy'' Romualdez, Mrs. Marcos's brother. And Mrs. Marcos is clearly grooming herself to succeed her husband.
But the incident is a graphic example of the important political role of the establishment press here, that of government cheerleader. The core of that press is three dailies and their stable mates - evening papers, weekly magazines. All are owned by Marcos loyalists.
The Times Journal (circulation 70,000-80,000) belongs to Mr. Romualdez, an intimate associate of the President. The Daily Express (circulation around 100, 000) is published by Roberto Benedicto, another member of Marcos's inner circle. And the Bulletin Today (circulation around 300,000) is owned by the Swiss-born Gen. Hans Menzi, a longtime friend and former aide-de-camp of Marcos.
Since the Aquino assassination on Aug. 21, journalists of all three papers - all of whom requested anonymity - say that government pressures on them have increased. But the papers have also come under attack from another quarter: Businessmen and the middle class are calling for a boycott of the papers; small tabloids are springing up and marginal journals are moving into the political mainstream.
Journalists say government pressure was stepped up as soon as Aquino was assassinated. On the night of the murder the Daily Express tried to put out a special edition. It was stopped, presumably on orders from the presidential palace, Malacanang.
''Government media people seemed confused and scared after the killing,'' a newspaperman said. ''They wanted to play it safe. No news was obviously good news as far as they were concerned.''
''Then,'' said another newsman, ''about an hour after we received photos of the shooting, the paper got a call from Malacanang. They wanted to pick up our negatives, ostensibly for use in an investigation. Half an hour later a man from Malacanang came for the negatives. We never got them back.'' (Several papers, however, had already made copies of their negatives.)
More government guidelines followed:
* Do not use photos of troopers from the Aviation Security Command emptying their rifles into the body of Rolando Galman, Aquino's alleged killer.
* Avoid photos or articles that might arouse sympathy for the Aquino family. Do not play up opposition reactions to the killings.
* Avoid photographs of the heaviest parts of the crowds that turned out for the Aquino funeral. ''We were told to concentrate on sparse crowds,'' said an official of one progovernment daily. ''I felt terrible. I mean, there were a million people out there.''
Now the guidelines are more positive. Journalists say they are told to play up stories about the President and his wife. And they should give good space to reprints from the US media that comment favorably on the situation here.
Newspaper workers say the guidelines come in the form of requests from Malacanang's office of media affairs, which is headed by a government minister, Gregorio Cendana. Mr. Cendana has been in the forefront of government attacks on the Western press for its allegedly biased reporting of events here.
Journalists say the requests are phoned in most evenings, usually by a member of Mr. Cendana's staff.
What happens if a request is ignored?
''The first time they would just draw your attention to it,'' a writer said. ''The second (time) they reprimand you. I dread to think what would happen the third time. We all have families to support. So we self-censor.''
Pressure also comes from the owners. Mr. Romualdez is said to call the Times Journal most nights to find out what stories be prominent in the next day's paper. And the owner of the Express, Mr. Benedicto, reportedly tells his staff to ''print anything you like as long as the President doesn't shout at me.''
''That sounds very nice,'' said a staffer, ''but the President seems to get angry very easily.''
The progovernment bias of the papers has come under heavy criticism since the assassination. Journalists on the papers say they have been shocked by the public hostility directed at them since then. They talk of angry phone calls and cables, abuse in the street. Some have covered up their paper's name on the side of their car.
The journalists have started their own agitation. Last month they called for a dialogue with the publishers. Only the Daily Express's Benedicto agreed. He denied interfering in the paper's editorial policy, but reportedly remarked that the Daily Express could not afford to antagonize the presidential palace.
The journalists continue to ask for discussions on a number of issues, including government control of the media and the ''loss of respectability of our profession.'' And one day earlier this month, they turned up for work wearing T-shirts that read, ''Free the Press.''
Businessmen and the new antigovernment groups have called for a boycott of the establishment media. But the boycott does not seem to be having much of an impact on the major dailies - or at least the Times Journal and Daily Express.
Officials of both papers say sales have dipped, but only in relation to the phenomenally high circulation that followed the Aquino assassination. Moreover Benedicto and Romualdez are both immensely wealthy from interests outside the media. Their newspapers seem to exist to serve the President rather than to make money. ''I doubt whether either paper is run as a business concern,'' a senior executive said.
The Bulletin Today's General Menzi seems more concerned. He depends on the paper and its stable mates for a large part of his substantial fortune. Insiders report that his paper's circulation has dropped appreciably, and the general now spends several nights a week on the editorial desk, encouraging his staff to be more daring in their choice of stories. Staffers find this ironic: Over the last year Menzi has fired one editor - officially because he was inefficient, though workers suspect it was because of excessive liberalism - and four of his outspoken columnists. All are thought to have been dismissed on the President's orders.
What Menzi is trying to achieve by his tightrope act is to stave off the challenge from nonestablishment papers.
At the top end of the scale is the sober Business Day. It has recently extended its political coverage, hired some of the columnists fired from the Bulletin, and now gives considerable space to statements by business groups opposed to the government. There is also the rcently established Manila Times, whose namesake was closed down with the declaration of martial law in 1972.
Then there is Mr. & Ms., long known for its rather syrupy profiles of ideal marriages and slightly tart political analysis. Now the weekly has produced a series of supplements entirely on the Aquino affair and its repercussions. They are extremely critical of the government.
There is also Malaya (Pilipino for ''free''). Run mainly by staffers of the now-banned We Forum newspaper, Malaya is thought to have a circulation of around 500,000, - more than the combined total of the three big progovernment dailies.
Behind these come a handful of smaller tabloids. All give wide coverage to antigovernment themes - particularly unfavorable foreign press reports of events here. Most are sold in the streets, or hawked at busy intersections by small kids. They are often messy, hastily edited, and ungrammatical. But they are doing well.