Last week Beting Dolor officially but quietly announced his taking over of the editorship of Philippine News. His Aug. 29 – Sept. 4 2007 column making the announcement was not online as of this writing; in its stead was a snarky, Dolor-written column (not too subtly entitled “He Asked For It”) gloating over Joma Sison’s arrest by Dutch authorities.*
This was after a two-month, seemingly rudderless though smooth period when the top of the editorial masthead remained empty after the quiet dismissal of Lito Gutierrez, the former editor in chief. Quiet, because Philippine News was characteristically silent about the transition. Gutierrez’s column, “The Inverted Pyramid”, simply vanished from its usual position to the right of the readers’ letters, and that was that.
At the tail-end of last June, however, the following unsigned email was circulated on the Global Filipinos mailing list, and I reprint it mostly in full (I’ve excised the email addresses from the rather brutal and terse letter of termination from Francis Espiritu, the President, to Gutierrez with carbon copies to the rest of the Espiritu clan).
THE DEATH OF FIL-AM PRESS FREEDOM
Philippine News, the oldest and largest Filipino-American newspaper fires Mr. Lito Gutierrez, its editor in chief. The letter of the newspaper President and the statement of the editor in chief are reprinted below in full.
[email addresses deleted]
Sent: Saturday, June 23, 2007 5:18:46 PM
June 23, 2007
Mr. Lito Gutierrez
Dear Mr. Gutierrez,
FedEx is trying to deliver your letter and checks but nobody would receive it.
You are hereby advised that your employment with Philippine News is terminated effective immediately.
Your final check, including any accrued vacation is attached with the FedEx package.
You are required to immediately surrender all corporate property in your possession including but not limited to the keys and ID.
You are no longer authorized to access any corporate information in any medium.
You are further advised that any malicious attempts to injure the corporation as a result of this termination will be met by vigorous legal action.
Very truly yours,
STATEMENT OF MR. LITO GUTIERREZ
PHILIPPINE NEWS has fired its editor in chief after he refused to spike a story as instructed by the paper’s management.
Lito Gutierrez, 55, who has been with the oldest and the only nationally circulated Filipino American newspaper for five years, received a call June 22 from the paper’s advertising manager who told him he had been terminated.
The story involved the case of Carlos Araneta, head of the San Francisco-based cargo and money remittance facility LBC, who had lost his appeal to have a court ruling against him reversed. He had been ordered to pay $25 million to his partners who accused him of depleting the assets of their partnership in a bank.
LBC is a major advertiser in Philippine News and other Filipino American media.
“The management of Philippine News must have forgotten that we are not in some banana republic, that we are in the United States of America where freedom of the press is a fundamental right,” said Gutierrez.
“Can you imagine,” he asked, “if it had been the White House or some powerful politician who called?”
Gutierrez said this was not the first time he had been asked to kill a story. Last year, he said PN president Francis Espiritu asked him not to use any story on businessman Rene Medina who had been charged by the Internal Revenue Service of failing to pay taxes.
Medina is the owner of Lucky Chances, a gaming facility in Colma, Calif., which, like LBC, is major advertiser.
He said he was able to avoid a confrontation with Espiritu and use the story on page one after Loida Nicolas Lewis, who then headed the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (Naffaa), issued a statement in support of Medina, saying that the IRS case was politically motivated.
In an email message to Gutierrez, the writer who had been assigned to do the Araneta story, Felix Ilagan said, Espiritu merely put a “hold” on the story so the paper’s lawyers could go over the documents.
“I think the guy just wants to smoothen things over,” Gutierrez said in response. “But that’s just being disingenuous. Given the propensity of Philippine News’s management to suck up to advertisers at the expense of serious, honest journalism, that ‘hold’ order was effectively a ‘kill’ order. Let’s not kid ourselves here.”
The public has this perception that media sings to the tune of advertisers, he continued. “Well, not under my watch.”
I’m not terribly surprised by the conflict between editorial and management in general. A publicist-engineered article in, say, Vanity Fair (or the Styles section of the New York Times) just happens to be better written than the thinly-veiled, advertising-related press releases in Philippine News (or in Filipinas, especially in the first few issues under new publisher Greg Macabenta, but not anymore, thank goodness).
But for a relatively small ethnic newspaper (though Philippine News is the one with the widest circulation among Filipino American newspapers), advertising revenue is total sink-or-swim money, since a small subscriber’s base is hardly enough to keep the funds flowing. The loss of a major advertiser — which is pretty much all the big companies that have booths at the Filipino American festival near you (airlines, banks, remittance and cargo companies, suburban gated communities outside of Manila, phone companies, certain Filipino restaurants who deny their employees unionization rights, and so forth) — can cripple a newspaper fatally. And such power can then be passively abused — in this case, if the details are indeed true, it is particularly egregious since it involves the Filipino American newspaper of record.
It’s a real shame, because Lito Gutierrez was very good for the newspaper. (I knew him when he was still the business editor back in the ‘mid-’90s, when I was an intern there.) Gutierrez took over from my friend and mentor Cherie Querol-Moreno and steered the paper into something like a junior heavyweight boxer: unapologetically long, full-page articles chock-full of sober analysis; a mostly testosterone-filled op-ed page, featuring people who looked like they smoked unfiltered Marlboros and typed on Underwoods. (And finally Rodel Rodis, probably the most intelligent columnist writing for Philippine News, returned to the main section, where he belongs.)
The Arts section was revamped into “Life &”, with large, splashy illustrations and reporters actually sent to cover arts and culture. This was also when the very fine Allen Gaborro was hired for “Book Notes”; considering that there are at least two Filipino American bookstores in the country, not to mention an explosion of publications and bookstores in the Philippines, it was something of a scandal, in my opinion, that no dead-tree publications covered Filipino writers regularly.
(You can see the change in the unsigned main editorials too, with Philippine News weighing in more strongly on non-Filipino issues. Sure, they understandably spilled an awful lot of ink on Cha-Cha and the Global Filipinos campaign — and not enough on, say, the war on Iraq. But these are relatively minor complaints. I do wish Janet Nepales would publish a bit more trash in her “Dateline: Hollywood” column though.)
But to call Gutierrez’s firing the death of Fil-Am press freedom — well, that’s a bit much. It does indeed seem terribly unjust, and I do hope that Lito is back on his feet (and hopefully making more money). But Philippine News, initially almost fatally hesitant but later plunging into the anti-Marcos movement with much fervor — was itself the victim of various blacklists, passport cancellations, mysterious office break-ins, and loss of revenue after Marcos’s minions pressured advertisers into withdrawing from the newspaper. And they survived.
The publishers of Ang Katipunan, being affiliated with the progressive organization Katipunan ng Demokratikong Pilipino — and alas, constantly redbaited by Philippine News throughout the ’70s — surely felt the heat more strongly, and yet they soldiered on throughout their relatively brief but vital existence. Filipino American press freedom didn’t die during those dark days; I can’t see it happening anytime soon.
But speaking of freedom (and Joma Sison again), let me draw your attention to a recent blog entry by Ninotchka Rosca. Rosca — herself the recent victim of GMA’s bullying tactics — exposes the myth of Dutch liberalism, particularly during its colonial empire (though I as a Southeast Asianist by training could understand why Austin Powers hated the Dutch so). But then Rosca drops a stunner of a concluding paragraph:
Joma’s arrest will have long-term impact, not on the revolutionary movement in the Philippines, but on the ability and inclination of Filipinos overseas to self-organize, to work collectively for better job and living conditions, for legalization of their presence and for protection against sexual violence and sexual exploitation. If the Philippine government can buy, with mining and oil exploration licenses, the cooperation of a host country like Holland in its policy of political repression against political dissent, how then can overseas Filipinos struggle against economic abuse, racism, sexual abuse and gender exploitation? The horrendous impact of this arrest is better understood in the context of the fact that 85% of the Filipino community in Europe is female.
Well, I politely beg to differ. Don’t get me wrong: I do not mean to belittle the importance of Sison’s arrest; I most certainly think he should be freed at once, and that both the Philippine and Dutch governments be held absolutely accountable for their actions (especially considering recent reports that Sison may be undergoing torture). I can also see the question coming — if they can arrest someone as prominent as Joma, then surely we can be arrested too? — but the question has already been answered: Joma’s prominence was precisely the reason for his arrest. (And I will not rehash here the old, tired and frankly discreditable argument that someone who really wants to serve the Philippines should go back, et cetera, et cetera.)
But Rosca, as an overseas Filipina herself, perhaps overstates Sison’s importance to the progressive movement as a whole. Overseas Filipinas and Filipinos have been organizing themselves pretty darn well for decades now without the protection, wisdom, guidance, intervention, or assistance of Joma Sison (or, for that matter, the Philippine government), and I suspect they will be doing so for quite a while, thank you very much.
Domestic helpers, gays and lesbians, nurses, victims of sex trafficking, jeepney drivers, people with HIV, factory workers, peasant farmers — and yes, including students who have read and understood Philippine Society and Revolution from cover to cover — and yes, both in the Philippines and in the United States and elsewhere — have been and are already doing real, critical, earthmoving work “against economic abuse, racism, sexual abuse and gender exploitation”. In terms of “ability and inclination”, as Rosca put it above, these people already have it in spades. In terms of the impact of Sison’s arrest on this ability and inclination, I’m hoping (actually, guessing) that Rosca’s got it wrong.
Surely these folks all owe something to the man in Utrecht, but perhaps only in a larger philosophical sense. The people’s struggle will go on without him. It already did.
* Dolor refers to Sison as “this steak commando of the Left”; I am sure that Dolor remembers that this ’70s-era epithet (“steak commando”) coined by Teodoro Valencia referred specifically to folks like Raul Manglapus, Ninoy Aquino, Charito Planas, and other U.S.-based activists in the, shall we say, more conservative wing of the anti-Marcos movement — including one of Dolor’s predecessors, Alex Esclamado. I hope Dolor was being ironic.