Juan L. Mercado

To generations used to the marketplace exchange of information in this digital age, martial law represents the country’s excursion into the alien and bizarre.

Information was not for everyone. Truth could be subverted for a higher good, like security or survival. Journalists, who did not sieve information with the sensitivity of the state, had to be muzzled before they could do more harm.
Information, lives—like scraps of paper, these were lost in the bureaucracy created to hold up one man’s rule.

Juan L. Mercado and Dr. Resil B. Mojares were among those who were “neutralized” or “invited”—euphemisms for the directive to military intelligence agents to take into custody political and non-political leaders after President Ferdinand E. Marcos signed Proclamation 1081 on Sept. 21, 1972, which placed the country under martial law (ML).

Multi-awarded for journalism and scholarship, Mercado and Mojares retrieve experiences and insights from a period when information and dissent persisted, anomalous fruits in a landscape where truth was buried with its tellers.

Why were you arrested?

Juan L. Mercado: Ask Ferdinand Marcos. In his “Notes on the New Society,” Marcos claims that “a rightist conspiracy and the communist rebellion” had linked up. “If given just the shortest time, it would pronounce the death sentence on the Republic. So, Marcos then signed Proclamation 1081…

Mass arrests of political leaders like Sens. Benigno Aquino and Jose Diokno thereafter followed.  In Greater Manila, military teams picked up journalists like Joaquin “Chino” Roces, Teodoro Locsin and 21 others.  We were served “Asso,” or arrest-and-seizure order.

They were not originals but mass-produced photocopies, bearing (Defense Minister) Juan Ponce Enrile’s signature. Our names were scribbled into blank spaces. These asserted we were to be detained “for subversion pursuant to Proclamation 1081.”

Resil B. Mojares: As far as I know, there were only two of us Cebu journalists who were detained (i.e., for political reasons) right after ML was declared.  The other was Gary Bacolod, but Gary was already based in Cagayan de Oro at the time of the declaration and that was where he was arrested and detained.

Why was I detained?  Based on the interrogation (which was in turn based on the dossier the military had on me), there were two things: my writings in The Freeman (I was a staff member, writing a regular column and occasional articles), judged to be anti-government; and my association with militant student groups at the time.  As Freeman writer, my de facto beat was the student movement; hence, I was often seen with leaders of groups like the Kabataang Makabayan and Samahang Demokratikong Kabataan.

Why were you arrested, not others?

Mercado: Too late to ask Ferdinand Marcos.  Is there still time to ask Juan Ponce Enrile?  Maybe not.

He backtracked on his “mea culpas” during the 1986 People Power revolt. In his 2013 book, “Juan Ponce Enrile: A Memoir,” JPE now insists the ambush was for real.  (Enrile’s ambush at Wack-Wack Subdivision triggered ML. During the 1986 Edsa revolution, he said the ambush was staged.)

The book costs P1,650 per copy—without the gift-wrapping. That’s a lot of shekels for smudging history.

What happened during your arrest?

Mercado: I recall the worried voice of National Press Club president Eddie Monteclaro over the phone. “Military agents are pressing me for your office address. They got Chino Roces, Amando Doronila, Teddy Locsin, Napoleon Rama in the first sweep of arrests. But they missed others. May I tell them you hold office at the Press Foundation of Asia (PFA)?”

The late Monteclaro had backbone. He lodged the first habeas corpus petition against Marcos for the detained journalists. Refusing to write under the dictatorship, he went on to the Chicago Sun Times.

“No problem, Ed,” I replied. “I’m not skipping town.” We had time to pack a bag and asked the PFA lawyer to prepare a power-of-attorney for the wife. When the agents came, I was meeting with Carl Zimmerman of Honolulu Star Bulletin.

The former AP chief in Manila, Zimmerman wangled a ride with us to Camp Crame. “Here it is, Carl—something about Proclamation 1081,” I said, when the colonel displayed one of those mass produced “assos” or arrest-and-seizure orders.

“Are you a foreign correspondent, sir?” the startled colonel interrupted. “Yes, I am,” Zimmerman replied. “I never said otherwise.” Slamming the folder shut, the colonel said, “No foreign reporter may see these.” On to detention camp for me then.

Mojares: I was taken into custody (“invited” was the euphemism at the time) from my home by military intelligence agents a few days after ML was declared (I can’t remember the exact date), and was detained at Camp Sergio Osmeña on Jones Ave. together with close to a hundred political (and some non-political) detainees.

How was detention?

Mercado: We were among the first group arrested on Sept. 21. Journalists were split into two detention centers: Fort Bonifacio and Camp Crame. We were in Crame and in the first group. We were released on Dec. 1, 1972.

Here is how Washington Post reported the event: “The Philippine Government granted ‘temporary liberty’ to seven newsmen and eight opposition politicians, including (the late House Speaker) Ramon Mitra… The journalists will be required to report to the chief of military intelligence periodically. Special documents will be needed for them to travel outside the metropolitan Manila area. And all are forbidden to leave the country…”

Flanked by the “Rolex 12” generals, Enrile then spoke glowingly of how martial law ended chaos. Garbage was being collected. He paused for comment. Nobody spoke up. After an awkward silence, we were told we could go.

“What are your plans?” Free Press editor Teodoro Locsin Sr. asked as we walked out of the Camp Crame detention camp.  “I’ll get out of the country if I can to give the kids a chance,” I replied.  Ummmm, murmured this towering editor whose writings proved that “the palest ink is better than the best memory.” It would be two full years before we managed to shuck off martial law, by joining the United Nations.

BARRACKS. Resil Mojares was detained in the soldiers’ barracks-turned-detention quarters for political prisoners at Camp Sergio Osmeña Sr., Cebu City. The two-story wooden building (in front of fire truck) had double-deckers on the first floor and an open space on the second floor, where Mojares slept on the floor with mats brought in by his family. When it later became unstable, it was torn down and replaced with the structure (below) now holding the offices of the Police Regional Office 7’s Anti-Kidnapping Group and Emergency Communication Center. (Photo of old building courtesy of PRO 7)

Mojares: To be detained is to be deeply violated, but the actual conditions of my detention were not too bad.  At least this was how it was at Camp Sergio Osmeña in the early months of ML.

The military was not quite prepared to handle the large number of detainees upon the declaration of ML, since the mass arrests included not just political detainees but “criminal elements” as well. The latter were held in the PC gymnasium across Jones Ave. from the front gate of Camp Sergio Osmeña.

The political detainees were housed in the two-story soldiers’ barracks (the soldiers were moved out to make room for the detainees); there was visitation the whole day; the rations were supplemented by food brought in by the detainees’ families (such that the Police Constabulary guards often ate with us since we had more and better food).There was even for a time the privilege of “day passes” to allow detainees to leave the camp for a day, under escort. I was not aware of any physical abuse of the detainees (at least where I was detained.)

At this stage, I think, there was a conscious effort by the local military to make the conditions humane, and also because Cebu was not a place of active insurgency, the soldiers had no reason to be harsh on the detainees.

How did your family deal with your detention? 

Mercado: Family and institutions are crucial.  Friends rallied around (my wife) Lydia…. My daughter Malou remembers Fr. James Reuter. The Jesuit waited until her St. Paul third grade class was dismissed. “Not everyone in prison is bad,” he reassured the kid. “Your father and other newsmen are not criminals.”

How did you regain freedom?

Mercado: The Press Foundation of Asia organized a mission headed by Denis Hamilton of Times of London to intervene for journalists. The late Eddie Monteclaro filed a habeas corpus petition for us journalists.

Our file has letters of protest. Jaime Zobel de Ayala, then the Philippines’ ambassador to London, received one from Financial Times editor JDF Jones saying, “I express concern at the detention by your government of our correspondent, Mr. Juan L. Mercado.” A cable from the Bulletin in Sydney says: “Our editor Donald Horne cabled President Marcos today requesting release…”

“Senator [Daniel] Inouye interceded with the Philippine Embassy in Washington,” Honolulu Star Bulletin editor A.A. Smyster wrote. The Associated Press’ managing editors and other US groups adopted resolutions on behalf of imprisoned journalists. The late cartoonist Corky Trinidad sparked these protests.

Mojares: I was released two-and-a-half months after (in December 1972).  As was the practice, it was a “conditional release” and I was under “provincial arrest,” with conditions like not publishing or giving interviews; reporting to the camp weekly and signing a logbook to indicate one was still around; and the bar against leaving the province without the permission of military authorities.

I was told I was freed of these conditions several months after—only to learn some two years after (when I was already freely traveling and was doing my doctoral studies at University of the Philippines Diliman) that I was still classified under “provincial arrest” because I did not formally apply for “absolute release.” So I applied and was granted absolute release several months later (or some three years after I was detained!).  But this was not anything dramatic or malign; it was simply bureaucratic.

I was released early (compared to many others), and I’ve been asked why.  As far as I know, I was helped by the local press club (I think it was already the Association of Cebu Journalists at the time) who asked that action on my case be expedited.  Hence, I went through another round of interrogation (the first one recommended that I be detained “indefinitely”) and this time I was recommended for release.  But then also (as I told those who had asked me the question), “I was not guilty enough.”  To be detained under martial law, the badge of honor is not that one is innocent, but that one is guilty.  Not being guilty enough is the reason why I’m not really too eager about talking about my detention.

How did your ML experience affect your views about press freedom then and today?

Mercado: We learned, the hard way, that journalists most vociferous in proclaiming liberty of expression morphed, under Proclamation 1081, into the harshest martial law censors.

In the Cornell University book, “Marcos and Martial Law,” David Rosenberg of Middlebury College in the chapter titled: “Liberty Versus Loyalty” provides this concise summation: “Whenever freedom of the press has been permitted, Filipinos defended it with passion. Whenever it has been prohibited, they complied with government regulation with obsequiousness.” That cuts—but it rings true.

More from Rosenberg: Three different explanations for restricting freedom of the press were offered by Marcos: (a) “the need to cleanse the media of communist subversion;” then amplified (b) “the necessity to dismantle the old oligarchic conspiracy;” and later on (c) “the role of the press as an instrument of social change.”

“There is little evidence to support any of them… here has been a large discrepancy between the declared official policy and the actual pattern of government control. These are best explained as attempts of the Marcos administration to strengthen its powers under a martial law regime of dubious constitutional legitimacy.

“The initial policy of closing down virtually the entire media was intended to silence the anticipated criticism of the declaration of martial law… But those who landed in jail were generally among the most respected and most professionally responsible…

“None of the detained newspapermen was specifically accused or tried for conspiracy… They were both influential and critical.  These journalists did not accept the administration’s claim that communists were responsible” for the Enrile Wack-Wack ambush or Plaza Miranda bombing.

The credibility of a censored press that resulted in a mere publicity machine was “so low it became an embarrassing liability for government,” New York Times’ Sydney Schanberg wrote. “President Marcos himself admitted the press has become sycophantic and obsequious.” Press Secretary Francisco Tatad and Ambassador J.V Cruz called the martial law press “a national scandal and disgrace.”

Rosenberg concluded:  Martial law media “now lack credibility and legitimacy. It is not now an effective instrument in the attainment of social change. It is more of a handicap in the government’s attempt to win popular support…”
Saddled with that flaw, “journalists today must remind people of what they prefer to forget,” columnist Simeon Dumdum wrote in “Speak Memory.” We must battle against creeping amnesia when cyberspace is cluttered with unverified opinion masquerading as journalism.

Rites of remembrance are about “a fine line we tread to honor a difficult past,” Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman once wrote. These exercises “are about the moral costs of both forgetting and remembering… injustice to lives lost or forever changed by brutal rulers…. Does remembering with undiminished intensity, over time, make us curators of our ancestors’ grievances? Can we honor the past without being trapped in it?”

We forget at the cost of betrayal. Amnesia over past crimes “reflects a weak sense of the nation and of the common good,” sociologist John Carroll writes in “A Nation in Denial.” “Unless (the country reaffirms) those values, it may be condemned to forever wander in the valueless power plays among the elite.”

Mojares: As it is not practiced in the same way, its import or consequence is not the same at all times. There is clearly a difference between the so-called “media killings” today (commonly perpetrated by either public or private individuals or groups who resent being exposed and are sorely aggrieved) and the mass detention of writers, journalists and activists, carried out by a state that, fearing its survival threatened, seeks to preserve its power.


Isolating people from one another

What martial law does when press freedom is abolished is not simply to suppress the flow of information but to isolate people from one another, turn them into solitary individuals, without the support of an organized community (which is possible only with communication)… That is when fear becomes effective.

Being prepared for martial law

Most everyone was talking of martial law before it happened but, without precedence, no one seriously believed it would happen, and people were caught unprepared. ML depends on surprise and extraordinary measures. One can’t be fully prepared for it.

Journalism not the main job

Apart from writing opinion columns and feature articles for a number of newspapers, I had my first job as news writer for dyRF, in 1964 when I was a student, though this lasted only for a month or two. Given the pay for journalists at the time, I never really considered journalism as a main job but more of a sideline in teaching (which did not pay well either), which was in turn secondary to what was really (and still is) my primary interest, writing.

RESIL B. MOJARES. Fictionist, essayist, historian, former newspaper columnist

Writing journalism and its weakness

I value my experience in journalism. Writing journalism is like being directly engaged in an ongoing conversation with a defined and living readership. You get immediate feedback, you can talk about diverse topics, try out ideas, elaborate, clarify, and quickly correct yourself, and you are “in the middle of things,” as it were, abreast with the daily flow of events.

But in this also lies journalism’s weakness. It is biased in favor of events rather than the structures. Borne along by the quick, unceasing succession of events, it tends to stay on the surface, without sufficient time and space to disengage and examine the deep-lying structures that underlie the events.

Journalists and academics

Journalists are strong on speed and readability but weak in substance and depth. Academics are strong in content but weak in readability; literary writers are strong in style but weak in content; and both take forever to finish… It’s not easy finding writers who combine the virtues of all three and none of the weaknesses.

Future of print journalists

You definitely cannot compete with electronic media in reach and speed. You have to turn what print media’s disadvantages are—its slowness and localized reach—into its comparative advantage, in terms of cultivating values of deliberation, reflection and depth as well as cultivating direct, intimate relations with a well-defined, living community of readers.

(Interview by Pachico A. Seares)