Brief History of Philippine Media

The history of media in the Philippines usually coincides with the colonial history of the nation, wherein it becomes a bi-product of various political movements and upheavals. Similar to the development of media in the world, the development of media in the country also had local endemic roots as well as foreign-brought predecessors.

Pre-colonial Traces

Like the early ancestors of humankind, our ancestors also developed a system of communication and information dissemination. When there is a system of oral communication, it follows that a system of written communication also existed.

From our historians, we learned that the existence of a language system in the pre-colonial Philippines was already in place in the form of the written word. The most notable discovery of which is the ancient alphabet called alibata or baybayin whose form was similar to the image-based types of characters of our Asian neighbors. As with the other tribal discoveries of other regions, ancient Filipinos also used materials existing in their environment to jot down and record their experiences and transactions using such a language system. However, oral systems of handing down information, literary creations such as folk tales and epics, as well as family histories were also predominant in various areas of our developing multi-language archipelago. 

Perhaps the closest to having a broadcast system of information dissemination in ancient times could be traced to the existence of the umalohokan or the town crier. The town crier’s major role was to go around the barangay or their small towns and announce important information that concerns the citizenry. In other historical accounts, the umalohokan was actually a person needed to settle arguments within the barangay. The barangay head or the datu would actually call for special elections to place someone as the umalohokan to help settle a certain dispute. When the argument was settled, the umalohokan’s “term of office” also ends. Thus, it is no wonder that today’s media would also have this kind of balancing function wherein two opposing sides of an issue would be featured.

The Print Industry and Filipino Freedom

Books, magazines, and newspapers were brought to the Philippines by the ancient colonizers, mostly printed in a language that not everybody in the archipelago could speak. As with the print industry’s historical development in Europe, there was also a glaring social class divide that was borne out of the citizens’ access (or lack thereof) to early printed materials. This divide created a predominantly literate ruling class that lorded over the “ignorant” or the un-schooled and uneducated lower class during the Spanish colonial period. The rulers of the time also deliberately withheld the public from accessing the early forms of media, keeping people in the dark about their ruling. Thus, even if the very first newspaper in the country, Del Superior Govierno, was established in 1811, it was intended for the Spaniards only so it was written in Spanish.

Early Filipino revolutionaries recognized this literacy divide and schooled themselves by learning how to read and write in their language and in the foreign one as well. This is why the very first newspapers in the country sprouted during the time when Filipinos were beginning to free themselves from the colonial masters. La Solidaridad was the most popular of these nationalistic newspapers published in 1889. We all know how our National Hero, Jose Rizal, also wrote his two famous novels that criticized the Spanish rule: Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. This proves that the pen could also be mightier than the sword, and both could work together to topple an oppressive regime.

It was during the American period when some of the long-running newspapers we have in the country were established, namely The Manila Times (1898) and Manila Bulletin (1900). Since the Americans taught us English, it was not that hard for Filipinos to keep abreast of the contents of the media’s content. However, all that changed when the Japanese occupation happened. Filipinos got their taste of media censorship when selected newspapers were allowed to run under tight content control. Underground media operated during that time until the country was liberated from Japanese rule. Since then, postwar Philippines enjoyed a healthy and free press practice. This was when the watchdog function of the media went into full swing, meaning the press kept a close eye on the happenings of the government and reported wrongdoings. The public was always aware of what happens.

However, all that changed upon the imposition of Martial Law in 1972. Then-President Ferdinand Marcos’s first moves were to suppress press freedom, forcing our brightest journalists underground, and even jailing some of them. Some newspapers were allowed to reopen but their slant was always pro-dictatorship and pro-government. Yet again, similar to how journalists took their pen and paper to help battle the Spanish regime, journalists established alternative press publications during the 1980s to inform the people of what really went on during the Marcos regime. Newspapers and journalists that established them were always on the run but were able to contribute to informing the Filipino people of what they needed to know. Some of these bright and bold luminaries included Jose Burgos (WE Forum), Felix Bautista and Melinda Q. De Jesus ( Veritas), Raul and Leticia Locsin (Business Day now known as Business World), Eugenia Apostol and Letty Jimenez Magsanoc (Inquirer now known as the Philippine Daily Inquirer), and Joaquin “Chino” Roces who ran The Manila Times during this period.

Prior to establishing Inquirer, a particular women’s magazine, Mr. and Ms., was also run by Apostol. Since it was deemed as a lifestyle publication for women, anti-government watchdogs didn’t take it seriously at first. But when it started publishing articles related to the assassination of Sen. Benigno Aquino Sr. after 1983, it was only then when government attack dogs set their eyes on its editor, Eugenia Apostol.

In general, when looking at the history of the Philippine press, the usual framing considered is rooted at the 1972 declaration of Martial Law in the country. Since the country was under this very strict and oppressive regime by former president Ferdinand Marcos, the country’s press freedom—or the lack thereof—is always scrutinized based on the eras before, during and after the dictatorship. Considering that the country’s media was under strict government control and censorship for 14 years, a comparison of living before, during and after such times is a framework that intersects the way we look at media’s development in the country. This is why it is also enshrined in the 1987 Philippine Constitution that media should also be protected and should remain free. A section in the Bill of Rights guarantees the freedom of the press as well as the freedom of expression of all Filipinos up to today. Again, Philippine media was able to establish a very free press from that point up to today. Can you imagine if this freedom was taken away from you?

When it comes to popular culture, magazines also came into the picture when the Spanish and American colonizers brought samples here in the country. Soon, foreign imports were adapted into the local culture with the help of pioneering publishers, editors, and writers. The most notable magazine empire in the early 1900s was established with the publication of Liwayway Magazine, a Filipino language magazine composed of serialized novels and short stories, essays, news items, photos, lifestyle and entertainment features, as well as a comic strip section. Published by Ramon Roces, it was actually a reworking of his father, Don Alejandro “Chino” Roces’ earlier magazine called Photo News, an effort that didn’t go well with the public because it was a magazine that featured three languages (Spanish, Filipino, and English). The more popular Liwayway proved to be a hit, and many of Philippine literature’s finest writers published their works there. Today, Liwayway is still alive and under the publication of Manila Bulletin. 

Other magazine publications came out which catered to various interests of the Filipino reading public. In the 1970s and 1980s, notable publications also came out which featured music lyrics and chords through the Jingle chordbook magazine. The musically inclined Filipino accepted this magazine format immediately. A smaller version of such a publication was the Jingle SongHits which featured popular songs during that era. Similar publications still exist today even if Jingle ceased to be published already.

The current market is also dominated by many other publications of varied interests. There has also been a trend of buying into a foreign magazine franchise and coming out with local versions of it. In the fashion and lifestyle domain, Cosmopolitan was one of the first of such titles to be adapted in the country. Its publisher, Summit Media, later acquired local franchises of other foreign titles for the local market.

From the comics section of Liwayway Magazine, notable comics pioneers exercised their talents and paved the way for a rich, colorful tradition, and history of the Filipino komiks industry. Even the hero Jose Rizal first dabbled into drawing cartoons and making stories with a comics format, prompting historians to tout him as the first published cartoonist of the Philippines. The first local comics strip was attributed to him upon the creation of the Matsing at Pagong comics strip.

Soon after, comics became widespread in Filipino society, and it became another viable form of affordable but well-crafted entertainment. When the American comics arrived in the 1940s, it became a combined art form that many Filipinos loved as it was somehow a cross between paintings, films, and literary stories. Our talented visual artists and s
torytellers made a name for themselves in this field, namely Tony Velasquez (the Father of Philippine Komiks with his character creation of Kenkoy), Mars Ravelo (creator of many famous superhero stories like Darna, Dyesebel, Captain Barbell, and many more), Larry Alcala and a host of others. The latest National Artist for the Visual Arts, Francisco Coching, is considered as one of the leading personalities of Philippine comics.

The European Film Import

Another European import is film. Two years after successfully launching cinema, the Lumiere brothers’ cinematographe film camera and projector invention made its way to Philippine shores via the efforts of a Spanish soldier named Carlo Naquera. With the cinematographe, he brought several Spanish-language short films and showed them to select audiences during 1897. When he ran out of short films to screen, he brought the cinematographe around and shot local scenes then showed them as brief documentaries. Seeing their own selves on the big screen prompted Filipinos to love this medium more. Thus began the Filipinos’ undying love for this art form. Thus, with the advent of another period of colonial history in the country—the American period—short films from America were soon imported and shown in the early theaters in Manila, particularly those located around Escolta and Intramuros, during the early 1900s. 

Since it was an audiovisual art form similar to what Filipinos then had already been accustomed to and was already creating—namely the stage theater-originated musical shows such as the “zarzuela”—it was no surprise that film-watching became a popular form of entertainment in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In fact, the very first Filipino-produced film, Jose Nepomuceno’s Dalagang Bukid (1919), was actually a movie adaptation of a popular musical stage play created by Hermogenes Ilagan starring the popular singer-stage actress who originated the role, Atang Dela Rama. The film ushered in another dimension to Dela Rama’s illustrious career as she would star in many more, as the film also designated Nepomuceno the title “Father of Philippine Cinema.” Because of such early artistic evidence, the Philippines is hailed as having developed one of the earliest film industries in the Asian region.

During the Spanish period, Filipinos who didn’t understand the language of the movie didn’t find it a hindrance to appreciate the imagery and the music that accompanied the screening. This is what makes a film a universal and powerful medium of information and communication dissemination. But since the American period mandated Filipinos to learn the American language and culture, it was no wonder that Filipinos embraced Hollywood film products that easily during those early times. This is why people sometimes joke that we Filipinos were under “400 years of Catholicism and 50 years of Hollywood:’ resulting in the Filipino of today.

Film’s primary purpose in the Philippines rooted in the entertainment factor, but this changed when the Japanese colonial period began. Seeing film as a viable form of mass media communication, the Japanese led the production of propaganda films and tapped Filipino directors and actors to make them. The most popular of such films was Dawn of Freedom (1944) which highlighted the World War II aim of the Japanese to have an “Asia for the Asians:’ It was co-directed by another pioneer of Philippine Cinema, Gerardo de Leon, and starred Fernando Poe Sr. plus other Japanese and Filipino actors. Emerging from the war-torn culture of the Philippines, especially Manila, gripping narratives featuring the war, lower-class underdogs and ordinary people as heroes for the people emerged in the cinema. Such themes and characterizations are still popular among Filipinos today when watching local or foreign films.

From the rubble of destruction, the Filipino film industry was able to rise, and the so-called “Golden Age of Philippine Cinema” emerged. From the 1950s onward, Filipinos found their culture being represented more in the big screen and some films even garnered honors for the country. In 1952, another film pioneer, Manuel Conde, was the first to bring an Asian film at the prestigious international film festivals in Venice (Italy) and Cannes (France) with his film Genghis Khan. Hollywood was even inspired to make their own version of this film starring famous western actor John Wayne.

Back home, the “Big Four” film production studios dominated the entertainment industry with homegrown classics. These studios, mostly family-owned business ventures, were LVN Studios, Premiere Productions, Lebran, and Sampaguita Pictures. These studios produced many classic films and made celebrities of the grandparents and parents of celebrities you may know of today. But emerging labor problems during the 1960s forced these studios to close down one by one as smaller independent film production studios started emerging. Thus, another era of the Filipino emerged to reflect the predominant youth subculture of the 1960s and the 1970s.

But as with the print industry, things changed during the Marcos dictatorship. Film was one of the most heavily censored media during those times, with filmmakers even changing the titles of their films if President Marcos or the First Lady Imelda Marcos found them offensive. Yet this era also produced a batch of the most artistic and thought-provoking films that somehow dared to show the real state of the Philippines and highlighted the drive of the Filipino people to be free from their daily struggles. Directors who became our National Artists for Film during this era included influential filmmakers Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal.

After the 1986 EDSA Revolution, the Philippine film industry became freer again, and the early independent studio producers blossomed into the leaders of film production today. The most notable of this batch is Lily Monteverde’s Regal Films followed by another family-ran business Viva Films. During the 1990s, ABS -CBN started their own film production company, Star Cinema, and the move was duplicated by GMA-7 in the 2000s with GMA Films. Today, most of the mainstream films being produced locally come from these studios.

The Broadcast Industry

The introduction of the broadcast industry in the Philippines started with the introduction of the telegraph and telephone system in the country. During the colonial Spanish period of the late 1800s, the British company Eastern Extension was granted permission to place submarine telegraph cables from Hong Kong to Manila via the province of Bolinao in Pangasinan. Thus, in 1890, the first telephone system of the country began its operations, and the whole archipelago enjoyed this system of information and communication exchange. When the Americans took over the colonial rule, they also took over the operations of these telephone and telegraph systems until they handed it to the local colonial government during the early 1900s. Riding with these systems, early radio broadcast experiments thus began in the 1920s.

Americans were primarily pivotal in bringing the broadcast industry to the Philippines. It was American businessman Henry Herman who first operated a small radio station in 1922 to serve as a product demonstration media for his business called the Electrical Supply Company. From these tests, he upgraded his small station and adopted the call letters KZKZ to name his station in 1924 and set up Radio Corporation of the Philippines to legally own it. This station eventually closed but the oldest radio station that still exists today is DZRH which first broadcast in 1939 as KZRH. It was connected to the H.E. Heacock Company, a popular department store whose Manila branch was owned by Samuel Gaches.

Slowly, radio sets became a fixture in Filipino homes. It was a friendlier medium since even illiterate people who couldn’t read or write were able to understand news and information being “told” them by the radio broadcast. Not only do listeners got the latest information from radio but they also got entertainment. The popular phonograph records came to the shores of the country and made it to the listening public via radio. American English and slang, via the American-originated canned programs, were being picked up by Filipinos, bringing American culture closer to the country. Eventually, local talents who could sing, do comedy skits and radio drama shows also developed through radio before crossing over to television and film later on. Advertising also became a huge enterprise thanks to radio, as programs were full of product-sponsored materials and catchy radio ads with memorable lines and songs or jingles became part of pre-war pop culture.

But during the Japanese occupation, radio was used by the colonizers for their propaganda purposes. The popular radio stations closed or operated with a limited capacity under the watchful eye of the Japanese. After the war, the stations reopened again and flourished anew in the post-war Philippines. Aside from commercial purposes, radio also had educational purposes as seen by the new government. Since radio is a nationwide pop culture favorite, it was tapped by the government to further educate the Filipino public through the establishment of the Philippine Broadcast System (PBS). PBS started with several informational programs geared to educate farmers. As radio could reach anyone with a radio set and clear access to a radio station transmitter, its reach is far and extensive. The Father of Philippine Radio, Francisco “Koko” Trinidad, oversaw and developed this type of distance learning system wherein instructional programs were aired over the radio for the benefit of classroom listening-learning all over the nation. As the PBS general manager from 1947 to 1970, he produced and pioneered radio programs similar to what the British Broadcast Corporation (BBC) was doing with their public service and education-oriented shows in England. 

Television came into the picture when an American engineer, James Lindenberg, established Bolinao Electronics Corporation (BEC) in 1946. Hoping to get a license for his perceived television station, the Philippine Congress granted it in 1950. But he was hampered by various costs and other import rulings that he ended up abandoning his television dream. The dream was also happening for another person, though, in the form of Judge Antonio Quirino. Congress denied him a similar request for a television license since they feared that he will use the new medium to promote his brother’s reelection bid. His brother was then President Elpidio Quirino.

Judge Quirino went to Lindenberg and bought the majority of the stocks of his BEC station. He renamed BEC to Alto Broadcasting System (ABS). He asked a family friend to help him get connected with Radio Corporation of America (RCA), the leading broadcast company in the US. RCA eventually helped Judge Quirino in establishing DZAQ-TV Channel 3 which aired the very first television broadcast in the Philippines in 1953. RCA also trained the very first television practitioners of the country. Quirino ran ABS until businessmen Eugenio and Fernando Lopez, who owned Manila Electric Company, showed signs of wanting to acquire the television station. Aside from being in business, the Lopezes also ran media companies since they bought one of the leading newspapers after the war entitled The Manila Chronicle. They also established their radio company Chronicle Broadcasting Network in 1956. With their purchase of ABS, the merger ABS-CBN began, which is today’s one of the top media corporations in the country.

Other media business families also went into television broadcasting. The Roces family of the Manila Times publishing business fame also went to television by establishing DZTM-TV Channel 5 in 1962. Former war correspondent and radio entrepreneur Robert “Uncle Bob” Stewart, who established DZBB AM radio station in 1950, turned to television in 1961 with his DZBB-TV Channel 7 owned by his Republic Broadcasting System (RBS), later to be renamed as Greater Manila Area Radio Television Arts (GMA-7) during the Marcos dictatorship.

As with radio’s history, the early content of Philippine television was foreign-made programs which alternated with the coverage and telecast of live (usually political) events. Documentaries from foreign embassies were also staples of early television. A Jesuit teacher, Fr. James Reuter, was pivotal in bringing a locally-made stage play and aired it live on television. A drama coach in the academe, Fr. Reuter cast his students who were the ones to act in the televised play. He went on to stage other literary classics for television with his students. Another characteristic of the early broadcast industry was the simultaneous airing of programs on television and in the radio. Mostly, entertainment-oriented programs were the ones that ran such broadcasts. Examples of these shows were the singing contest Tawag ng Tanghalan and the satirical drama show Kuwentong Kutsero.

Similar to press history, Philippine broadcast industry was put to a halt by the dictatorship of Marcos. Since radio and television were more far-reaching and therefore more convincing in airing popular opinion, Marcos saw it as an enemy that needed to be heavily censored and controlled—and he did. He even imprisoned the head of ABS-CBN at that time, Eugenio Lopez Jr., as well as hunted down media practitioners who were actively speaking out against him and his dictatorship. Media freedom truly suffered a blow during the dictatorship.

But media, especially broadcast media, was also pivotal in gaining back the freedom denied the Filipino people by Marcos. With the far-reaching messages of radio and the moving pictures seen on television, freedom fighters of the 1986 People Power EDSA Revolution successfully urged the Filipino people to culminate in EDSA and stand against the dictatorship. Cardinal Sin went live on air at Radio Veritas and asked people to support the military leaders who were already defecting from the Marcos side. As a result, government troops tried to knock down the radio station’s main transmitter. But broadcasters still went on air and used an emergency transmitter to still relay important information and developments to the Filipino people. They broadcast under the monicker “Radyo Bandido” and it was spearheaded by broadcast journalists June Keithley and Angelo Castro, Jr.

Today, the broadcast industry is one of the leading sources of mainstream mass media products and services in the country, with the top two stations ABS-CBN channel 2 and GMA-7 continuing their original mandates of serving and entertaining the Filipino public. Radio still enjoys a healthy existence despite the dominance of television, catering more to the masses and the music-listening public with public affairs programs and pop music stations popular all over the country. Cable television is also enjoying a healthy subscription, providing Filipinos more access to Asia and worldwide-produced television programs. 

Local Online Media

The Philippines officially connected to the world of the Internet on March 1994 through the efforts of PHNET or Philippine Network Foundation, a consortium of various academic institutions, private companies, and government agencies. A few commercial companies also belonged in the consortium. On August 1994, the first commercial Internet service provider was launched by Mosaic Communications or MosCom, making it possible for Filipinos to go online.

However, there were earlier efforts to have the Philippines interconnected virtually since the late 1980s. For instance, the first Philippine-based precursor of the local online forum called the bulletin board system (BBS) was established in 1986. In 1987, several locally-operated BBS groups in Metro Manila created a network to connect with each other called the Philippine FidoNet Exchange. It was in 1990 when a proposal to have a similar network to connect various academic institutions in the country was proposed, but nothing came out of it. In the early 1990s, email communications was also introduced in several sectors, primarily within multinational companies operating in the country like IBM, Motorola, and Texas Instruments. The FidoNet people also began email exchanges. Because of such efforts, as well as having the desire to further the country’s information and communication access online, the Philnet project was commenced in 1993, which eventually became PHNET. 

Most of the country’s Internet access before was enjoyed through the existence of Internet cafés. These are coffee shops who offered the usual fare except that they had an array of desktop computers set up to connect to the Internet. In provincial areas where the reach of the Internet is still quite impossible due to certain infrastructure or geographical reason, Internet cafes still thrive up to this day. This is also where people who don’t have their own personal computer or Internet connection at home come to access their emails, access their social media accounts, and also play online games. The Internet’s popularity, especially in accessing it this way, was catapulted by the need for Filipinos to contact their loved ones abroad. Many OFWs working in various parts of the globe have benefited from the Internet phenomena by making information and communication exchanges to their loved ones quite fast and now more affordable. Accessing the Internet via cellphones or smartphones was also an important factor in making the Filipino Internet-friendly and mobile at the same time. 

Indeed, the Philippines has enjoyed the various benefits of being connected to the world’s global village in merely 20 years of the Internet’s existence in the country. Filipinos have also been highlighted in the online world, especially with our heavy usage of social media. In fact, the Philippines was named as the “social media capital of the world” in 2011 as 93.9% of the population area are heavy Facebook users. In a global survey, the Philippines is also in the top 10 countries that use Twitter the most.