Brief History of Philippine Print Media 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 storytellers 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.