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Apr 19

The Explainer: Freedom of the Editor

Tonight we will discuss one man who preferred a free press to one responsible only to the great dictator. He happened to be a press baron: and so a relevant question then as now might be, for publishers, like the late Joaquin “Chino” Roces used to the power game, where does duty lie? Can economic survival require subordinating press freedom? I’m Manolo Quezon, The Explainer.

 

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Joaquin “Chino” Roces has a new biography by Vergel Santos: he describes him as “shortish, and his eyes, his smile –indeed his whole countenance, and his carriage were gentle- he tended in act to be thought soft, and underestimation that served him well.”

His family was the most successful prewar media family; and they would remain the most successful post-independence media family until martial law. But it wasn’t a story of permament success. The prewar Roces media chain, the TVT or Taliba-Vanguardia-Tribune trio dating to 1916 and firmed up in 1924, dominated the media landscape prior to the Japanese Occupation.

Occupation by the Japanese left the Roces’ Tribune the last paper publishing –but under Japanese control and his father, Alejandro Roces, dead of shock after one of his brothers was killed as a collaborator with the enemy.

In 1945 the Roceses returned to publishing, reviving the Manila Times since the Tribune masthead had become debased and disgraced. Unlike his literary cousins such as Joaquin, Alejandro and Alfredo Roces, Chino Roces was from first to last a manager.

Chino Roces’ elder brother, Ramon Roces would be in the printing industry, and successful as a publisher of comics; but Chino would manage the Times through the difficult transition to media modernity, from the use of radios to communicate to the setting up of a TV station. Today’s media obsession with convergence was a familiar preoccupation.

This, too, meant a manager’s keeping an eye out for talent, including giving a leg up to a young man named Ninoy Aquino, sent by Chino Roces to Korea to cover the Korean War a young reporter.

At its height in the 1960s, the Manila Times had a circulation virtually the same as the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s today- with a population today infinitely larger than our population in the 1960s.

Then as now, publishers and editors were valued or at least coddled by the powerful, as mas media became deeply intertwined with the populist urges of politicians. The media came out strongly for Ramon Magsaysay and he in turn recognized the power of the press by elevating the position of spokesman to cabinet rank.

But if the cozy world of boardrooms –in a country made safe for capitalism by the success in crushing Communist rebellion by Magsaysay- might extend to the world of publishers, that country, too was increasingly in a state of flux by the 1960s.

It as a country where old money competed with the new, and where democracy was compromised by warlords and where agrarian revolt was once more rearing a bloody bolo.

Presidents like Diosdado Macapagal tried to walk a fine line between conservatism and reform; and increasingly complained of a press so free it was oftentimes –in the eyes of officials, anyway- licentious.

Of course, despite Imelda Marcos’ notorious insistence on representing only the true, the good, and the beautiful, she and her husband, too, could mix diplomacy with the darker aspects of the power game. She and her husband cultivated their own press barons and found the Manila Times, leading paper of the day, a thorn in their conjugal side.

President Marcos in his diaries and public statements said a plot was ongoing, in which the old rich and the new revolutionaries, the status quo and the radicals, were conspiring to destroy him –and that he, in turn, was duty-bound to launch what he’d later call a Revolution from the Center.

Ferdinand Marcos once said that nothing succeeds like success. His critics all warned he would try to stay in power for ever; he denied it even when he imposed martial law and loced up all his opponents so no one could resist his making himself dictator-for-life. Among other things, he argued that what we needed was not a free press, but a responsible press. Responsible to himself, and this meant Chino Roces would be among the first arrested on September 23, 1972.

Ninoy Aquino, killed in 1983, was the longest in prison, but among his fellow prisoners were three from the Times family of companies: Chino himself, Jose Mari Velez of their radio station Channel 5, and Max Soliven, columnist.

Chino Roces had helped in the 1978 Laban campaign; Ninoy’s assassination galvanized the despondent opposition. He became a fixture in rallies that confronted the dictatorship with a target it found difficult to comprehend: not fire-breathing radicals eager for a rumble, but stubborn protesters dedicated to active non-violence.

The Times resumed publication on February 6, 1986 as Marcos embarked on his last –and fatal-gamble to prove he still had what it took to outgun, outgoon, and outgold anyone with the uppity idea he should go.

But the Snap Election, leading to People Power, restored our national pride but also brought democracy to a shattered and bankrupt nation.

It did bring a temporary prosperity to the revived Times this time under the management of Ramon Roces. But that would prove temporary due to a controversy over its funding –and Chino himself was back, but in the Times’ old rival, the also-revived Manila Chronicle.

Between Vergel Santos’ life of Chino Roces and the magisterial story of the Chronicle penned by Raul Rodrigo, any reader interested in media matters can piece together a fascinating story of the confrontations that molded a generation of media people. But beyond the headlines, a battle was ongoing for the soul of the nation.

When President Aquino decided to honor Chino Roces with the Philippine Legion of Honor, rank of Chief Commander, the highest honor a president can bestow without congressional authorization, Chino Roces decided to issue a manifesto.

It came in the form of a thank you speech in which he asked whether Edsa was merely restoration, or a more fundamental manifestation of national principles: most especially, of justice for every man.

And if, in the two decades we have all perked up our ears to the insistence that we cannot have a nation run by a thief, then that line perhaps found its first thunderous expression in Chino Roces’ taking the government of Cory Aquino to task.

It was his gift to posterity; by 1988, he was dead of cancer, Cory Aquino’s rosary in his hand as he drew his final breath.

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