How tight are Marcos's reins on the Philippine press?
Manila — Teodoro Valencia typifies a class of Filipino journalists who are convinced that press freedom in the Philippines is not curtailed. His durability and high profile have earned him the title of dean of Filipino reporters and newspaper columnists. He says that the main problem with the Philippine press is the journalists who refuse to exercise their freedom.
''They continue to live in the shadows of martial law during which the government had to censor stories whose publication would pose a threat to national security,'' he said. Mr. Valencia added that the patronizing style of reporting adopted by some journalists has given foreigners the impression that the press in the Philippines is controlled by the government.
His daily column, ''Over a cup of coffee,'' is widely regarded as reflecting the ideas of President Ferdinand Marcos and as acting as a sounding board for government policies. Valencia himself is often considered a Marcos drumbeater.
In his column he frequently explains the credits of Marcos's actions. Although he does not criticize Marcos directly, he does not spare Cabinet members and other officials from his acerbic comments. And he does not mince his words when criticizing Marcos's political opponents and critics, especially the Western press, which he labels as summarily biased against the Philippine government.
It is indeed possible that government censorship during martial law, which lasted from 1972 to 1981, helped breed complacent journalists who prefer merely to wait for government press releases rather than research their own stories and report independently on what they actually see.
Leticia Magsanoc, a former editor of a weekly magazine, said that during the emergency period, a government representative used to look over the shoulders of writers and editors to ensure that all stories written and published were ''politically safe.''
Because of this practice, journalists adopted a policy of self-censorship to avoid friction with the government and to ensure the continued existence of their publications.
But Mrs. Magsanoc, who herself was forced to resign becauses of stories that can be considered threats to political stability. Magsanoc said her own publisher was often summoned to Malacanang (the presidential palace) for having published stories that did not please the authorities.
''Under these circumstances many journalists, whose bread and butter come from news reporting, are often compelled to take the safe path by avoiding politically controversial stories,'' she said.
Valencia, however, argues that those who take the safe path are simply ''journalistically lazy.'' Although the government takes exception to certain stories, this does not prevent reporters from being gutsy and wriggling around government sensitivities. He said that even Western journalists sometimes run into pressure from their governments. ''After all, journalists do not work in an entirely free environment; some form of pressure from the government or elsewhere is always present,'' he said.
Ben Rodriguez, another editor, who resigned in May, said there are some forms of control on those who are responsible for evaluating and presenting the news. ''Since there are inevitable differences in opinion between the government and the press on what types of stories are politically sensitive, journalists and editors have to practice a lot of brinkmanship,'' Rodriguez said.
Such brinkmanship seems to have catapulted Bulletin Today, the news daily Rodriguez used to edit, to its position as the newspaper with the largest circulation. It has built up a certain level of credibility among readers because it has dared to publish reports on military atrocities and corruption in government.
Rodriguez's brinkmanship, however, seems to have been tipped in view of his resignation from the Bulletin. The resignation appears to have been triggered by a series of stories published about military abuses in the northern Philippines, which the government has strongly denied.
Apart from Bulletin Today, another paper that has been skillfully walking the tightrope between politically controversial stories and government write-ups is the Metro Manila Times, which came off the press only late last year. Like the Bulletin, it often carries political and military stories that the other papers would hesitate to use. Metro Manila Times wriggles around self-censorship by using the reports of foreign wire agencies.
The public perception of the Philippine press is that the major dailies are owned by either relatives or close associates of the Marcoses. This is particularly true for the Daily Express and Times Journal, which are most closely identified with the Marcos family, although their mastheads show the publishers to be relatively unknown individuals.
The new Metro Manila Times is published by Kerima Polotan, wife of a presidential adviser whom other government officials say can skillfully demarcate between politically sensitive and politically safe stories.
Meanwhile, Bulletin Today is published by Hans Menzi, a Swiss who previously served as a top aide to Marcos. Although Menzi is closely associated with Marcos , he is a shrewd businessman who knows that stories criticizing government policies will sell more papers.
Under the current circumstances, it is to be expected that Philippine papers will not directly criticize Marcos. And a continuing close relationship between Marcos and the publishers could assure him of an administration that is virtually free from an adversary press.