A timely reminder on press freedom

Dr. Georgina R. Encanto’s book The Community Press and Its Revolutionary Tradition (2019) comes at the right time, unfortunately when throughout the country there is widespread protest, deeply anxious, even anguished, over the shutting down of ABS-CBN. 

Apparently, we, as a people, have always valued the opportunity to express ourselves, and against great odds have found ways to do this.

We, as an audience, always knew there is a mainstream press usually owned by the political and economic elite—the establishment. These are, to borrow a word from Rene Saguisag, mainly the so-called tsutsuwa sector, who chant hallelujahs and are at great pains to play their role as apologists for the powers-that-be.

‘The Community Press and Its Revolutionary Tradition’ by Georgina Reyes Encanto
‘The Community Press and Its Revolutionary Tradition’ by Georgina Reyes Encanto
It makes me proud that there were intrepid publishers and journalists in the provinces who, against great financial and political odds and pressures, struggled to be heard. 

This book carries accounts of how these contributed to create awareness at the local level of the abusive practices of our colonial masters and homegrown dictators. These small community newspapers offered a medium for reporting on local happenings and exposing the abuses, greed, and corruption of the friars and of local public officials.

These early newspapers were published in the local dialect or both in the dialect and in Spanish. These struggling local publications gave their communities the sort of information they needed to understand and make some sense of what was happening in their own immediate surroundings and understand how their grievances were also being experienced in other parts of the archipelago. 

Among the early newspapers were El Eco de Vigan, put out in 1884 by Mayor Jose Giver of Vigan and became the first newspaper published outside Manila; El Porvenir de Visayas, published in Iloilo in 1885; El Boletin de Cebu, published in 1886; El Eco de Panay, a weekly in Iloilo that focused on agriculture; and El Eco del Sur, published in Bicol in 1893.

These publications were subjected to heavy censorship but valiantly risked being penalized. Though they were often short-lived, they performed an important function of providing historical, scientific, and religious information and literary fare. To historians, they afford useful glimpses of the state of printed media at that time.

Contrary to the claim of the Spanish press historian Wenceslao Retana that political journalism in the Philippines started in 1887 with the publication of La Opinion, which demanded the ouster of the Spanish friars, Encanto claims there were already several vernacular newspapers that exposed and expressed resistance to the abuses of the Spanish colonial rulers. 

Encanto establishes the existence of what she calls a “revolutionary tradition in the provincial press,” dating back to the Diariong Tagalog edited by Marcelo H. del Pilar in 1882. 

Though short-lived, having survived only from June to October of that year, Diariong Tagalog managed to expose the abuses of Spanish friars which Del Pilar personally experienced as early as his years of schooling in grammar school and as a young lawyer and later a journalist. As a young Law student, he learned about the Cavite Revolt and the raging issues of Filipinization of the parishes, which the Spanish priests vehemently opposed, as well as polo or forced labor, the collection of taxes based on faulty civil registries, and other abuses which led to the Cavite Revolt of 1872.

Gifted with his mastery of Tagalog and poetic skills, Del Pilar satirized well-known prayers like “Ama Namin” and wrote other stinging articles under the pseudonym of Dolores Manapat and nationalistic poems which made Diariong Tagalog a mouthpiece for peaceful reforms.

El Ilocano was an eight-page vernacular paper singlehandedly produced by Isabelo de los Reyes. First published in 1889, it should be credited for its measure of success for its impressive circulation figures. By 1893, he had steadily built up a circulation of 600 copies mostly covering northern Luzon, and by the third year, he was even able to acquire his own printing press whose machine and types were imported from Europe but assembled by Vigan artisans.

El Ilocano became De los Reyes’ mouthpiece for his vitriolic attacks on the friars whom he detested and whose abuses he had also personally experienced in the Vigan Seminary, his arrest and imprisonment in the Bilibid Prison for allegedly being a “filibustero” and the refusal of the military authorities to give him permission to visit his dying wife.

It also featured articles on the pre-colonial history of the Ilocanos as well as their crafts and culture, thereby affirming their identity, and, in effect, expressing resistance to the dominant ideology of the colonial masters.

These two newspapers were the trailblazers of a distinctive trend among community newspapers that expressed resistance, questioned, opposed, and challenged the ruling colonial masters and later, homegrown dictators particularly Ferdinand Marcos who imposed martial rule in the Philippines from 1972 to 1986.

La Solidaridad is familiar to all of us who had Philippine history in high school. Filipino expatriates in Spain waged an active propaganda campaign, denouncing oppression, corruption, abuses by the friars, and denial of freedom of the press in the Philippines. When this movement broke down in Spain, it was continued in the Philippines through the community newspapers.

The Filipino has always struggled to be heard. During the American period, despite limited resources, there were newspapers that dared to challenge the use of English as a medium of instruction and the not-to-subtle efforts of the Americans to develop an English-speaking market in the region. During the Japanese occupation, there was a proliferation of guerilla newspapers, just as there was the mosquito press during Martial Law.

Now, in our supposedly free country, we have lost ABS-CBN. It was, with its vast audience in the urban and rural parts of the country and among Filipinos abroad, a “community press.” I think Dr. Encanto’s meticulously researched and well written book reminds us that in difficult times, we have always strived for press freedom and should continue to do so.

Topics: Dr. Georgina R. Encanto , The Community Press and Its Revolutionary Tradition , press freedom , ABS-CBN

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