Media slip out of Marcos's control

On Oct. 19, Alex Orcullo, a Philippine newspaper publisher and outspoken opponent of the government, was stopped by armed men on the outskirts of the southern city of Davao. The men took him out of his car and shot him, in front of his wife and young child.

Such incidents are not rare. The politically motivated elimination of government opponents has been given a slightly ironic name here - ''salvaging.''

What was unusual was the coverage of the murder in a leading Manila newspaper. The Daily Express - owned by a close friend of President Ferdinand Marcos and until recently one of the most obedient of newspapers - announced that Mr. Orcullo had been killed by a ''terrorist group'' with close links to the military.

A year ago the story would have been buried, probably after a late afternoon call to the news desk by the government's Office of Media Affairs. The difference in coverage epitomizes many of the changes that have taken place in the Philippines over the last 15 months.

Before the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. in August 1983, the Marcos government relied heavily on two institutions: the military and the press.

The military protected the regime. The press projected the regime - creating an image of determined, farsighted, humane leadership. This picture gave little space to any hint of corruption or military abuse.

Today both of these institutions are in trouble. The military is discredited by the Aquino assassination and divided by the indictment of its chief of staff, Gen. Fabian Ver, for his alleged part in that crime. And the press is slipping out of the government's control.

Even government media workers seem to be changing. The final report of the board investigating the Aquino assassination recommended that Col. Vicente Tigas , a Presidential Security Command officer attached to the Office of Media Affairs, be indicted for his alleged role in the assassination.

President Marcos is fighting a rear-guard action to check or at least slow the slippage. On especially important issues he intervenes personally.

One example: On Oct. 23, Justice Corazon Juliano Agrava, the chairwoman of the Fact-Finding Board investigating the Aquino murder, issued her report. Unlike the report released the next day by the four other members of the panel, Mrs. Agrava's findings exonerated General Ver, Marcos's close aide.

That night the President called Pat Gonzalez, editor of Bulletin Today, Manila's largest newspaper. He reportedly told Mr. Gonzalez to make sure the report in general - and Ver's exoneration in particular - received prominent play the next day. Gonzalez apparently complied.

In a recent address to a publishers' association, the President made clear his unhappiness with all segments of the media. Speaking of the Filipino media, the President remarked that ''it sometimes even seems as though the licentiousness and sensationalism we all used to bewail have fully returned to haunt us.''

Foreign correspondents indulge in ''facile projections of our national decline and collapse,'' the President continued. And the American press, though scrupulously fair at home, ''becomes servant to the grossest forms of bias and prejudice'' when it turns to foreign subjects.

And then, Marcos said, ''There's the alternative press. Now that's something else.'' The alternative press is perhaps best epitomized by two weeklies: Mr. and Ms., and Veritas. Both are exponents of what might best be called middle-class guerrilla journalism. Sophisticated and politically middle of the road, they keep up a constant campaign of harassment against the government.

Mr. and Ms. is a scruffy newsprint supplement to a rather more sedate magazine of the same name. It claims a circulation of around 250,000. Other newspaper sources - political allies but professional competitors - claim the real circulation is probably 40,000 to 50,000.

The paper's attacks on the government are sometimes sly, sometimes direct.

When Ver testified before the board, for example, he repeated the military line that Aquino had been killed by a communist hired gun. Mr. and Ms.'s headline on the testimony subtly summarized the more prevalent public view of the murder: ''Ver sticks to his guns.''

Despite such needling, Ver's office recognized Mr. and Ms.'s importance by granting the paper the only interview the general had given since the assassination. Ver's staff now clearly regrets the decision.

Ver is not known for his verbal agility. In an interview two years ago, he was asked about ''salvaging.''

''I don't know what it means,'' he replied. ''We use another term: TND - termination and disposal.''

In the recent interview, he was asked if it were true that his devotion to the President was such that he would jump out of a window if Marcos told him to. This was true, Ver replied. But he would do so in ''a rational way.''

Ver may also have made a more important slip. A senior government official who is also a lawyer said that Ver had made a ''big mistake'' in discussing the assassination in his interview. The official said that Ver had apparently contradicted his testimony to the Fact-Finding Board, thereby weakening his case in the coming trial.

Veritas identifies very much with the middle-ground Roman Catholic opposition to the government. Its editor, Felix Bautista, is press secretary to Jaime Cardinal Sin and is usually the one who writes the prelate's harder-hitting speeches. Financial support comes from businessmen who came out openly against the regime in the last year. The paper plans to go daily by the end of the year.

Both Mr. and Ms. and Veritas focused heavily on the last stages of the Fact-Finding Board's work. A couple of weeks before the final report was issued, Mr. and Ms. published a summary of the final report of the board's general counsel. The general counsel's report formed the basis for the final board report, and recommended that Ver and 25 others be indicted for Aquino's murder.

Veritas waited a little longer, but went further. As people filed out of the building where the board had just made public its majority report, they were met by newsboys selling a special edition of Veritas - the complete 60-page conclusion of the general counsel's report.

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